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?

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Fez - A walk in the medina

Fez has the reputation of being the closest thing you can get in Morocco to a medieval town, with its labyrinthine medina. It can intimidate at first, but during my three days in town I learned to navigate its narrow streets and become acquainted with its smells and colours. The gates of the old town, Fez El Bali, soon became familiar sights, especially Bab Boujeloud, commonly called by foreigners the Blue Gate.

In the medina of Fez, I saw many traditional jobs that have almost disappeared in other parts of the world, but that are still very much part of everyday life in Morocco. There is a square dedicated to coppermaking, for instance, with a picturesque tree in the middle. While walking through the medina I glimpsed people carving Arabic writings on marble tablets, working wood to make beautiful decorations or sewing leather slippers.
Man at work
What struck me about Fez, though, is the number of religious buildings within the walls of the medina. You cannot walk too far without encountering a mosque, a medersa (Koranic school) or a shrine. Unfortunately, in Morocco the entrance to religious buildings is mostly forbidden for non-Muslims. What you can do is glimpsing through the open doors, having a look at the beautiful decorations, and observing the people taking off their shoes and entering the mosque to pray.

Taking a look inside

The shrine and tomb (zaouia) of Moulay Idriss II is one of the most fascinating places in Fes el Bali, the medina. At the entrance of this shrine - dedicated to the 9th-century ruler and founder of the city - there are women selling candles to light in the shrine and small satchels with many kinds of nougat, a common pilgrimage gift.

Selling nougat

It's not Fez if you are not invited to visit one of the many rooftops, and of course you're expected to leave a tip if you enjoyed the experience. On a rooftop, among looms where the women make carpets and the laundry of a random family, I noticed the green roofs of the srhine and the central mosque, which is the spiritual centre of the city.

The green roof of the shrine

View from a roof
I also visited the medersa Bou Inania, which is hidden behind a door very close to Bab Boujeloud. Since I had visited medersa Ben Youssef in Marrakesh I knew more or less what to expect, but I didn't know that the two Koranic schools are so similar. If you are visiting both Marrakesh and Fez, I advice you to visit medersa Ben Youssef, which is better preserved and allows you to go upstairs in the former bedrooms of the students. Medersa Bou Inania is the subdued version, but the mosaics and the decorations are just as beautiful.

From one corner you have a perfect view of the minaret, and from the door you can observe how the life outside goes on busily while you are within the quiet walls of the medersa.

Medersa Bou Inania

Of course the medina is full of smells and surprises: spices of all kinds, hens tied to their cage for sale in the food market, or a man pushing a cart full of strawberries.
Spices in the souk
Hens for sale in the food market

Jewels and small tagines in the medina
Every now and then you'll come across one of the many fountains. They are all covered in ceramic tiles and intricate marble carvings. Some of them will have a glass tied to it with a cord or a chain, and kids will be washing off the dirt from their feet, while women will be cleaning vegetables.

A fountain with azulejos in Fez

Needless to say, I was invited to see the famous tanneries, a young man leading us along the narrow streets of Fez for what seemed to be a very long time for such a short distance. What a way to try to earn a tip! Once we arrived at the rooftop from where you can see the tanneries, we were introduced to the ancient tradition of making leather goods by hand, bags, slippers and jackets that are sold to the visitors. They were not pushy, but of course they appreciate if you buy something or if you leave a donation to the cooperative. 
A view of the tanneries
Everything around me looked interesting, and I have many tales, because everything surprised me, from the Coca-Cola with the Arabic spelling to young people's obsession for Barcelona football club. In Bab Rcif Square, I saw men cooking snails in a stall, and serving them in a broth, and I was  offered a taste.

Selling snails in Fez
The mellah, which once was the Jewish quarter, is another part of Fez that is worth having a look at. Here I found a graffiti reproduction of one of the fountains I encountered within the walls of Fez El Bali. This is a less visited part of the city, almost gritty, with kids playing football and men sitting in crowded cafés drinking endless glasses of tea.

A graffiti in Fez
A row of women chatting near Bab Rcif Square

I found Fez to be an interesting town: a bit less aggressive than Marrakesh, but also a bit more difficult to appreciate. It's not as immediately exotic, and its beauty is more in the small details or in the scenes of everyday life. It's touristic but not as much as Marrakesh, and it's overwhelming at times. It has quiet corners, and really friendly people who are never to pushy. Overall, I think that Fez should be included in every itinerary of a tour of Morocco, and it should be approached with calm, without prejudice. I think that in a city like Fez it is important to try to savour every bit of Moroccan culture, observing without intruding, with friendliness and never scared of asking questions.  

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Chefchaouen - dreaming in blue

There is a place in the foothills of the Rif mountains of northern Morocco that has enchanted independent travellers for decades. It is Chefchaouen, locally called simply Chaouen, a small town with houses painted blue and the verdant hills all around it.

I arrived in Chefchaouen on a Tuesday afternoon after a four-and-a-half bus journey from Fez (it costs 75 dirhams, which is around 7€): it was the end of March, and the weather was miserable. With three nights booked at Riad Baraka, I hoped that it would get better, so that I could enjoy my stay properly, and perhaps do a little hiking in the mountains as well. Since it was raining hard, I spent the first night in the hostel, warming up against the electric stove and chatting with the other guests, as if we were on a ski holiday. It was a nice evening: we were all travelling alone in Morocco, we came from many different countries and had previous experiences of independent travel.

A cat in the streets of Chefchaouen

It was during that first evening of rain that I learned about the history of the town. Chefchaouen was founded by Berbers of the Ghomara tribe, and it was later resettled by the Moriscos and Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. The entrance to the city was forbidden to all foreigners, and especially to Christians, until 1920. The few travellers who managed to enter back then found Jews still speaking 15th-century Andalucian Spanish. The houses were painted blue in the 1930s by the Jewish inhabitants of the town, who have since left for Israel or other parts of the world.

A street in the medina

In Chefchaouen the men all wear the djellaba with the hood on, as if they were Moroccan wizards, and some of the women wear a traditional costume that includes a straw hat.

A man with a djellaba


A wall in the medina of Chefchaouen
Luckily, the following morning the rain had stopped, even though it was still chilly and cloudy. In spite of relying mostly on tourism, I found Chefchaouen to be authentic and charming. The choice of food to try seemed to be more varied here than in other parts of Morocco, including Fez and Marrakesh. I tried anchovy tagine, home-made yogurt, squid, sardines, and of course the harira soup that you're offered at the beginning of most Moroccan meals. A dinner at Bab Ssour - a very friendly, cheap and traditional restaurant we found hidden in a corner of the medina - only cost me 65 dirhams (6€).

Selling fruit in the medina of Marrakesh

In the main square of the town, Place Uta el-Hammam there is a Kasbah that you can visit for a few dirhams, with great views of the hills from the top of the tower and a good exhibition on history, traditions and customs in the area. I also hiked to the Spanish Mosque, which is worth not so much for the building itself, but for the views.

View of Chefchaouen while hiking to the Spanish mosque

On the way to the mosque you pass by Ras-el Maa, a small waterfall where women do the laundry and locals come to take a walk. The hills, when they are surrounded by clouds, give a rather mysterious aura to the place. At times, I thought I was in a Central American small town.

A view of Chefchaoen and its hills

Once we arrived to the top of the hill,  where the Spanish mosque stands, we found a relaxed atmosphere , and sat there for a while, observing the women who were looking after sheep and goats.

Grazing sheep in Chefchaouen
People come to Chefchaouen to relax, to learn about Moroccan culture, or to hike. Most likely, you will not find annoying tourists who shout or behave in inappropriate ways. Even though Chefchaouen is in the middle of an area which is famous for the production of kief and for the easy access to marijuana, I found that the kind of people that make their way to Chafchaoen do not care too much about it. I didn't meet anybody who wanted to get stoned all the time, or that was really interested in touring the illegal plantations.  
The rooftop of Riad Baraka
The medina of Chefchaouen is small, clean and not at all smelly. What a change from the aggressiveness of the medina in Fez with its smells and its touts! Nobody will bother you here, except the occasional man who unconvincingly tries to sell you hashish or lead you to your riad. It is a relaxing experience if compared to a walk in the medina in Fez or Marrakesh. A few days in this town will introduce you to the culture of northern Morocco, with its mish-mash of Andalusian and Berber influences.

A door in the medina
A corner of the medina
Selling dry fruits in the medina

When strolling around town, among blue doors and colourful pots with plants of all kinds, prepare for an array of pleasant surprises. During my wandering through the narrow streets I found  a local art gallery, a hole in the wall selling samosa-like pastries for 5 dirhams (0,40 €) and an improvised market stall (in the picture below).

An improvised market stall in Chefchaouen
An art gallery in the medina of Chefchaouen

I did take a hike on Thursday. Together with other 5 guests from the riad, we made our way to Parc National de Talassemtane, about half an hour away with a grand taxi. The return trip cost us 400€ (€37,50), the six of us squeezed in an old Mercedes. There are several possibilities here: either you make your way to God's Bridge, or to Oued El Kelaa waterfall. We chose the latter, two hours and a half away. The hike was overall I bit more difficult than we expected: it had rained a lot, and because you have to cross the river several times by jumping on some rocks, it was impossible not to get wet.

The canyon in Parc National de Talassemtane

The landscape, with canyons, clear bodies of water, and wooden huts with refreshments, reminded me of my hike in the Samaria Gorge in Crete. On the way to the waterfall we encountered very few people, most of them Moroccans. At the end of the hike, we finally found the waterfall. It is a beautiful sight, in peaceful surroundings, and we were the only one exploring the area.

Oued El Kelaa waterfall
We were told that there was going to be food, but probably because it was not high season, we found the bar unprepared. We managed to order a few fried eggs, served without cutlery, a pot of tea and some biscuits.

We quickly made our way back to the entrance of the park and we found a local restaurant, where we ate a delicious kefta tagine and a plate full of grilled sardines. This was one of the best meals I had in Morocco, and not only because I was hungry.

My three days in Chefchaouen ended with warmer weather and finally some real sun.

View from the Kasbah


Sunday, 29 March 2015

The Istanbul of Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, was born in Istanbul, in the neighbourhood of Beşiktaş to be precise. In his memoir "Istanbul: Memories of a City", he describes the city with its variegated reality and complex history, both honestly and passionately.

Yet, the Istanbul Pamuk writes about is not exactly the city we know today, modern and colourful, cosmopolitan and full of life. It is the city  he grew up in, one that looks back with nostalgia at its glorious past, which is no longer the capital of an empire but wished it still was. By the end of the book it becomes clear that the author uses Istanbul to talk about himself, and that the city becomes a double for the writer. It is undeniably true that the Istanbul of sultans and harems is long gone, but the city the author remembers, with decrepit wooden houses, pastry shops he visited as a child hand in hand with his mother, and dilapidated streets is not entirely a thing of the past. You can glimpse it now and then, if you happen to get lost or wander some of its more modest neighbourhoods, for example Fatih. Once inhabited by the middle-class of the city, the area around Eminönü is now prevalently a dilapidated neighbourhood that has been taken over by immigrants from other parts of the country.
View of Istanbul from the boat
This books helped me get in touch with Istanbul, understand its long history, and appreciate the apparent decay of some of its neighbourhoods and the shining newness of others. By reading this memoir you'll make the acquaintance of sultans and paşas, Western writers fascinated by the city, and the characteristic yalis. I understood something about these wooden houses on the shores of the Bosphorous only because I read this book. It is not apparent, by walking through the streets of the city or by taking a boat tour, how much of the city heritage was lost due to fires, decay and careless demolitions, for instance.

Istanbul panorama

Pamuk lingers on the memory of opulent Ottoman palaces falling to pieces, then he tries to explain how Ottoman minds used to think, through a quirky encyclopaedia of the city written by a certain Reşat Ekrem Koçu, explaining how the author freely inserted stories, personal opinions, anecdotes and even his sexual preferences into a publication that was inspired by Western encyclopedias but had a distinctive Turkish flavour. 
A wooden house in Sultanahmet

Pamuk's slow, descriptive style and his penchant for sad tones might be a bit hard to digest at first, but I think that this book is a great introduction to a complex city that has had a million lives since it was founded more than 2,500 years ago.

Galata Bridge

Sunday, 15 March 2015

What I love about Southern Europe

It's not a mystery that I love southern Europe. With this post, I just want to share the reasons why, and post some more pictures of four really special countries that have a place in my heart: Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Among the countries in Southern Europe that I haven't visited, Croatia, Montenegro and Malta are at the top of my list, and I might be able to visit some of them this year.


The blinding white of the marble of the temples and of the whitewashed houses in the islands are set against the blue sky of the even bluer sea: Greece is a country in white and blue, like its flag. And then of course how not to mention its incredible history, among the reasons that make Greece one of my favourite European countries? In Greece you're constantly walking in places whose history goes so far back that they are shrouded in legend: Knossos and the minotaur, the Acropolis and the first philosophers, but also the fascinating history of Atlantis, who many historians believe to be the enchanting island of Santorini. 

The Parthenon

This soldier in his strange attire, mounting the guard in front of the Parliament building in Athens, must have been very hot, given that there were almost 40° that day. One thing that I love about Greece is that at times it feels very familiar - Greece is Italy's "cousin" after all, as Greek people have told me endless times - and at other times it feels unfamiliar, almost exotic: the different alphabet and that incomprehensible but beautiful language, the culture that mixes Western and Ottoman, and the distinctive food.

Changing of the guard in Athens

It's really impossible not to fall in love with the relaxed pace of life of this Mediterranean country, especially in the islands: those whitewashed houses with colourful doors and stone pathways, the pots of flowers on display and the cats languidly brushing against them, everything there seems to be made to please the eye.

The beautiful village of Oia in Santorini


The mudejar architecture of Andalucía, the loudness of young people eating tapas in a bar while sipping their clara or a vermut, the vitality of its cities with cutting-edge contemporary art, I love this country so much that I decided to move here from Italy last July. I've visited Madrid and Toledo in the centre, Andalucía in the south, Barcelona and several towns in Catalonia, not to mention Zaragoza halfway between there and Madrid, but there is a lot more to see.  

The Alcázar in Seville, Andalucia

On my list of places that I still haven't visited in Spain but that are on my list I can mention Granada, Valencia, the Basque Country and Costa Brava. I'm sure that each one will have its own cultural richness, its own signature food, and magnificent landscapes to be enjoyed during sunny days.

Detail of the cathedral in Tarragona

The endless struggle between those whose love Barcelona and those who prefer Madrid will never end. Both cities have plenty to offer, they are beautiful, with plenty of sightseeing and renowned museums, with thousands of bars and little restaurants to try. What's more, even though we are speaking of bit cities, people are friendly, food is good, and the atmosphere is laid back.

View of Barcelona from Tibidabo


Being such a variegated country, with snow-capped mountains, great beaches, cities full of art and enchanting villages, even a person who spent most of her life in Italy has a lot to discover. Every new area explored has its own cuisine, its own history and traditions, its own dialect and regional pride. My favourite region is perhaps Tuscany: the countryside around Siena and the gracious dome in Florence, and the simplicity but richness of its cuisine are just two reasons that make me love this region of Italy.  Whenever I am in Tuscany - I have been four times I think - I have the feeling that everything is heart-felt, made with great care and expertise, not to mention imbued with history.

Statue of Garibaldi in Pisa

The north of Italy, foggy and cold in the winter, with elegant towns such as Verona or Mantova, not to mention the peaceful beauty of the lakes (Lake Maggiore is maybe my favourite), sets a harsh contrast to the chaos of the south, passionate, loud and enticing as it is. It almost seems impossible that the Amalfi Coast and Sicily are in the same country as Lake Como!  

The countryside near Padua
In Italian culture it is important to savour one's meals with friends or family, and to simply relax without getting too stressed. And of course art runs in our veins: I just love the amount of art and culture that I can absorb during a trip to a random Italian town.

Vatican Museums, Rome


A bit cranky, relegated to the last bit of land before the Atlantic Ocean, Portugal is too often skipped in European itineraries, but it's a really beautiful country. Overwhelmed by the awareness of a great past and an uncertain present, Portugal has saudade written all over it. By simply walking the streets of Lisbon or by reading the poems of Pessoa, you actually perceive this feeling of longing and irreparable loss, felt in the melancholy of the fado.

An old tram in Porto
It is a pleasure to sit outside, enjoy the sun and order a plate of sardines or bacalhao, while having a chat with the friendly locals. Portugal is cheap, beautiful,  and what's more important still not overtly touristic. Here you don't have to bother about touts or being ripped off, but you can enjoy the authenticity of the place you're visting, the good weather, and the port wine of course!

Lisboa and its famous bridge

A street in Alfama, Lisbon
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