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?

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.  
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