Sunday, 27 March 2016

Surviving Bangkok

After writing a post called "Surviving Marrakech", I though it would be fun to write "Surviving Bangkok". As a matter of fact, for many travellers the capital of Thailand is the first encounter with Asia, and for this reason it can be a bit intimidating. I must confess that when I first arrived in Bangkok from Europe I didn't know exactly what to expect and I had only a vague idea of how to navigate it.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok
Bangkok is huge, chaotic and full of energy. It has grown without rules, with no center and no urban planning, because Western colonizers, with their obsession for tidy spacious boulevards and squares, never conquered Thailand. As a result, Bangkok has many souls: from the opulent temples of  the historical island of Rattanakosin, to the lively and chaotic Chinatown with its Chinese street signs, or the ultra modern areas of Silom and Siam, with huge shopping malls and luxurious hotels, Bangkok has something for everyone.
 

Chinatown, Bangkok
 
One of the fist things I noticed about Bangkok is that it has a traffic problem. Luckily, the public transport helped me, in particular the BTS Skytrain, an elevated metropolitan train that is easy to use and also rather cheap (fares start at 15 baht, 0,38€). Unfortunately, this does not reach all parts of the city. On the day that I wanted to visit the Grand Palace and the temples nearby, I was advised by the staff at my hostel to take a boat. This revealed to be a rather adventurous and very cheap trip on a low motorized boat with a lady that walked barefoot on the wooden rim of the boat to collect tickets.
 
Another great way of getting around the city is by taxi, even though as I mentioned you can get stuck in trafic. I usually try to avoid taxis, but in Bangkok they run on the meter and they are pretty cheap (typically less than 100 baht, 2,5€). The only place where I've seen that they refuse to use the metre is around the Grand Palace, because it is the most touristic place in the city and taxi drivers know they can make more money by agreeing a price. If a taxi does not want to take you on the metre, then flag another one or walk a little further. 
 
A taxi near Chatuchak weekend market
 
In Bangkok it is tiring to walk from place to place because of the hot humid weather, and it can take forever to reach your destination on foot. It is nevertheless interesting to try it once, if it's not too hot. I decided to do part of my journey back from the Grand Palace on foot, and I was rewarded with some interesting sights of Bangkok daily life, like these people playing checkers on the sidewalk.  


Playing checkers on the street

Bangkok is a safe city, if compared to any European city like London or Paris. Moreover, locals don't bother tourists that much, and the only scams I've seen are really harmless. The most common cannot even be called scam and I recognized it immediately, but I was with two other girls and they insisted on taking the suspiciously cheap tuk tuk. These drivers, for the equivalent of 1 or 2 euros, take you around to see several temples, but in exchange they want you to stop at a tailor's shop to have a look at the clothes, while they receive fuel vouchers. Don't feel obliged to buy anything!

Tuk tuk driver

If Bangkok offers interesting sightseeing during the day, it is even more exciting because of its famous nightlife. Even though I'm not into luxury holidays, I went to a rooftop bar one night, on top of a skyscraper! There are several in Bangkok, but the one I went to is called Vertigo and Moon Bar and it is on top of the Banyan Tree hotel. The view of the city from the 61rst floor is pretty amazing, as you can imagine. I went with some people from my hostel, and even though we had to wait quite some  time for some seats, it was worth it. The prices aren't for everyone, I must admit.


View from the Moon Bar

Where to eat in Bangkok? It might seem incredible if you've never been to Thailand, but the most incredible meals I had were by the road. There is no lack of restaurants in Bangkok, but the ultimate experience here is to eat a pad thai, or another simple but delicious dish, in one of the many improvised stalls that pop up in the evening almost everywhere in the city. Around my hostel, in Ratchadewi, there were many. They cook the noodles, or whatever your ordered, right on the spot with fresh ingredients, and for around 40 baht (1€). With cheap and delicious meals like that one after the other, you can afford to have a drink at a rooftop bar, right?

Grilling meat in Bangkok

Another reason to write a post called "Surviving Bangkok" is to learn how to cross the street! Streets in Bangkok often have several lanes, they are very trafficked and can intimidate you. You will often see some overpasses for pedestrians. In many parts of the city, it is the only way to cross the street so do take them. If you have to cross the street but you are unsure how and when, just follow the locals!

The main tourist sights in Bangkok can be visited in two or three days. The most expensive is the Grand Palace at 500 baht (12,70€), but it is unlike any other temple complex I visited in Thailand. Never in my life have I seen so much gold! Be prepared for hordes of Chinese tourists, and make sure to arrive early, because it closes at 3.30 pm.

Chinese tourists visiting the Grand Palace

Learning how to bargain in Chatuchak Weekend market or around Khao San Road is something I never learned to do properly, even though theoretically I know the rules, like start at 50% below the asked price and work up from that. Don't do like me the first time I was in Morocco: I was so unsure of my bargaining skills that I ended up not buying anything (and there were plenty of beautiful things to buy for cheap prices).

For the rest, just enjoy the energy of this city. If you're on a longer trip you'll end up going back to Bangkok more than once, and each time you'll be more at ease there.



How was your experience in Bangkok? Did you, unlike me, learn to bargain?

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Hiking in Costa Brava

Barcelona is visited by millions of tourists every year, yet most of them never think to venture outside of the city. What a mistake! There are dozens of interesting places in Catalonia, from enchanting medieval towns to marvellous beaches. A stretch of the coast that is really worth exploring goes from Blanes, to the north-east of Barcelona, to the French border. It is called Costa Brava, which means "rugged coast". 
 
The rugged coast of Costa Brava
 
Pretty much all of Costa Brava is lined by Caminos de Ronda, coastal footpaths used in the past by the Guardia Civil to control the coast and stop smuggling, and now offering excellent hiking possibilities. They are dotted with calas, small charming coves, surrounded by pine groves and wild flowers. There is no shortage of secluded beaches, fishermen's retreats and water grottos, making the hike very interesting and varied.

A cove near Palamos
 
One day last summer, I took a bus from Barcelona to Palamós (17€, 2 hours), and I began to explore the coast to the north of this point. I found the small town of Palamós a bit underwhelming, apart from the church of Santa Maria, with its nice façade. The real beauty starts of course when you start following the footpath along the coast. The water is very clear, the landscape keeps changing because of the many small bays and cliffs encountered. Some of the beaches are crowded, for example the famous La Fosca, not far from Palamós, but others, especially the hardest to reach, are not.

The beauty of Costa Brava


One of the most charming coves I have encountered is called Cala S'Aguer, and it's dotted with colourful fishermen's houses and boats. In another country this cove would have been taken by souvenir shops and restaurants. Here, instead, I could still see bits and pieces of quiet life: an old man painting, a woman cleaning the fish for the dinner, and so on.



Cala S'Alguer
Another image of this cove

Around Cap Roig I lost my path, and it took me a while to get back to it. Here, I discovered, there is a famous music festival with international artists, and a botanic garden. There is no lack of culture in this area of Spain: one of the towns of Costa Brava, Cadaqués, was chosen by Dali, Picasso and other artists as a summer home.


Near Cap Roig

It took me about 3-3,5 hours to reach my final destination, Calella de Palafrugell, including a stop for luch in one of the few small restaurants along the path. Unfortunately I did not stay long in Calella, because the clouds that had started to gather towards the end of my hike finally decided to give in to a good downpour.

Peace and quiet in Costa Brava
Next summer I hope to pick up from where I left and explore a little bit more of this beautiful area.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ayutthaya: the ancient capial of Siam

One of the most charming places I visited during my three-week backpacking trip to Thailand was Ayutthaya. Sometimes neglected by travellers caught between northern Thailand with its world-famous street food and  the glorious beaches of the south, Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam, is ideally situated a couple of hours by train from Bangkok and it did not feel crowded or overtly touristy at all. UNESCO-listed, atmospheric and quiet, it is the perfect retreat from chaotic and polluted Bangkok.

 A corner of Wat Mahatat in Ayutthaya
Let me tell you that to get there by myself from Bangkok was the easiest thing in the world: no hassles at all at the train station, and the third class carriage is not as bad as it sounds: it's even funny, and super cheap (20 baht, around €0,50). People passed by every two minutes selling snacks, while older Thai men checked my ticket to make sure I was on the right train. There were many backpackers on the train, all waiting in trepidation to visit these world-famous ruins. Once in Ayutthaya, I walked straight, then hopped on to a boat for a few baht to cross the river and in no time I was in front of  the ruins.


A Buddha statue in Ayutthaya
 
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and it was the capital of a kingdom that stretched all over Thailand. The town takes its name from Ayodhya, the mythical birthplace of the Hindu god Rama and the setting for the Hindu epic Ramayana, which Thai people call Ramakien. The city prospered until it was sacked and burned to the ground by the Burmese in 1767. It was at this point that the capital of Siam was moved further south, in Bangkok.  
 
A stupa in Wat Phra Si Sanphet
 
The ruins in Ayutthaya are inside a historical park surrounded by a moat, but there are separate entrance fees (50 baht, €1,30) for each main temple. You'll soon begin to orient yourself in terms of which ruins are on the island and which are off the island. There are a few interesting ruins off the island, that is to say outside the park, for which it is advisable to hire your own transportation (a bike, a motorcycle or a tuk-tuk ride are all fine). You could even hire an elephant, but concerns about the well-being might stop you.
 
Elephant ride in Ayutthaya
 
 
The first temple I visited was Wat Mahatat. Most of the buildings in Ayutthaya only show the orange brick with which they were built, but the countless Buddha statues with offerings of flowers or food on the side, the contrast with the green grass and the general atmosphere of quiet and harmony of Wat Mahatat are unique. I noticed that most Buddha statues in Ayutthaya were decapitated, probably a consequence of the aforementioned sack, yet around this temple there were several intact ones, and they are in beautiful surroundings.
 
One of the Buddha statues in Wat Mahatat
 
 
This is also where you can find a tree with roots growing all around a Buddha head that rolled down the rest of the body long ago. There is something mystical about this image: a face deep in meditation, with a peaceful expression, but swallowed - or perhaps only caressed - by the roots of a tree. 
 
The famous Buddha statue with roots all around it
 
 
I decided to sleep one night in Ayutthaya, so I took my time to visit it without rushing or looking too much at the watch. It was an excellent decision. On the morning of the second day I went to Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Even though I regret not going there for sunset with the evening boat tour, I had the temple almost completely to myself. Since it is located outside of the island, most day-tours skip it. It's huge and spacious, with a considerable visual  impact, but it's not as old as you might think. It was built in the 17th century in the Khmer style, in vogue at the time.
 
Wat Chaiwatthanaram
 
Another temple worth visiting is Wat Si Sanphet, with its famous three stupas (also called chedis), the typical bell-shaped structure of Buddhist temples. Its the most important temple in Ayutthaya, because it used to be the royal residence. Monks, with their bright orange tunics, are a fairly common sight in Thailand, but they always make for great pictures. 
 
 
 
Wat Ratchaburana was my fourth temple among those with an entrance fee. I found this the least charming among the four, perhaps because part of it was being restored, or perhaps because by now I was a bit templed-out.
 
Some of the statues that decorate Wat Ratchaburana
 
A couple of things I didn't like about Ayutthaya are the stray dogs that wonder around the place and the inexplicable absence of places to eat around the ruins.
 
Buddha heads in Ratchaburana
 
 
Ayutthaya was one of the highlights of my trip to Thailand, and yet I almost missed it. My initial plan was to go to Sukhothai, further north, and then maybe go for a couple of days to Siem Reap and visit the amazing ruins of Angkor Wat. In the end, I skipped Sukhothai in favour of the Loy Krathong festival in Chiang Mai and I ended up cancelling Cambodia due to a lack of time and organizaiton. Ayutthaya offered me what I wanted - amazing ruins and lots of history- at less hassle. If you're in Thailand and you've always dreamt of playing Indian Jones among the ruins, this is the place to go.

 
 
 

Monday, 4 January 2016

On the footsteps of emperors - visiting Split

For a history enthusiast like me visiting Split in Croatia was a real delight and a dream that came true. The city grows around and within what used to be Diocletian's Palace, built around 300 AD as a private residence for the emperor's retirement. He chose this place because it was close to his home town of Salona. The palace was abandoned after the decline of the Roman Empire, but in the 7th century people took refuge here to hide from the Slavic invaders. They started to build houses and business shops inside the palace complex, which had been both a fortified citadel and an imperial palace. When I first arrived in Split I was asking myself where the palace was exactly, and then I realized that it is everywhere: inside private houses, on the courtyards of restaurants, or inside a museum!



Inside the palace

One façade of the palace looks onto the sea, while the others are fortified, with a gate for each side. Some of the decorations have disappeared, like the statues that stood inside the niches, but the Croatian men dressed as centurions will remind you that you are in a place of considerable historical significance. Tufts of grass or flowers grow among the stones, giving an air of fascinating decadence to the whole place.

One of the ancient gates

Walking along the walls, I was soon able to find, next to the Porta Aurea (Golden Gate), the statue of Grgur Ninski, the 10th-century Croatian archbishop who introduced the Croatian language for religious services. It is a pretty big statue and it has become one of the symbols of Split. It brings good luck to rub the statue's toe, which as a result is smooth and shiny.

The toe of Grgur Ninski's statue
 
Emperor Diocletian is famous for having harshly persecuted Christians but, quite ironically, after his death the mausoleum built to host his remains was turned into a church. It maintains the original 4th-century Roman structure, and it has a 2,500-old black sphinx at the entrance. Other parts of the church were obviously added  later, like the bell tower. A mish-mash of styles is rather astonishing, if not interesting. 

The mausoleum looks out onto the Peristyle, a monumental columned porch that formed the access to the emperor's apartments in Roman times and is now the main square of the town. In the evenings you can sit on the stairs, on red cushions provided by one of the bars, and listen to music performances while admiring the ruins or observing the architectural details. I was completely mesmerized by this square and I was trying to imagine how it looked like in Roman times.

The main square in Split
 
Split is such a fascinating place, full of surprises around the corners of its glistening paved streets. You pass under porticoes, next to columns, and observe windows with colourful shutters built into the structure of the palace.



Buildings from different periods intersect the Roman ruins, forming a chaos that is nonetheless rather charming. Restaurants and bars put their tables on the paved streets, next to the palace walls, offering their food: seafood and pasta are everywhere, but you can also find soups and Bosnian cevapcici if you search well. While getting lost in the narrow streets of the old town, you can peer through an iron gate and discover a secret garden with ancient marble columns and thousand-year-old stones that formed part of the temples and buildings inside the palace.
 

Peering through a gate and discovering a secret garden in Split

My favourite sight in Split was Jupiter's Temple, once part of the complex of the palace and now a baptistery. There's a headless Egyptian black sphinx guarding the entrance, but the real star is the door. I photographed it so many times at different hours of the day, because I love the carvings and the marble with which it is built. It made me feel like Indian Jones, especially because it is located at the end of a small street that departs from the Peristyle, elevated from the main street level. Interestingly, the statue inside the small temple is not of Jupiter but of Saint John the Baptist.

Door to the temple of Jupiter

In spite of being a city built around ancient ruins, Split is rather modern, with fancy shops and sophisticated restaurants that could compete with any town in Italy. It was quite a shock to come here directly from Sarajevo, which is in many ways a simpler kind of place, with less international brands on display and devoid of that annoying obsession for everything hipster.
 
A restaurant in Split
 

I will give you an example of the kind of shock that travelling from Bosnia to Croatia will give you. On my way back to the coast of Croatia from Bosnia, which is almost a landlocked country, we passed through some mountains, and then entered a valley. There, the first thing I could see after villages and villages characterized by a small mosque with a tall slender minaret, was a church with a pointy bell tower. This reminded me of the religious divisions in the area, and how different ethnicities live side by side in this part of the world.
 
A religious image inside a window in Split
 

Outside of the city walls, the city is equally beautiful. Walking along the Riva - the seafront with a Venetian name - is really pleasant. From here you have a view of the outer walls of Diocletian's palace, but you can also enjoy the nice breeze coming from the sea. I remember that there were some stalls selling fritule, which is a sweet of Venetian origin, except that we only eat them around Carnival time, in the winter, and here there are for sell even in the summer. I also took a long walk on the hill that surrounds the town, and ate a really good dinner at Konoba Fife, right at the end of the Riva. You can have fresh mussels or seafood risotto here for a very reasonable price.
 
The Riva
 

For my second day in Split I know I wanted to relax, so I headed for the beach. There is one just outside of the town centre, but as most beaches in Croatia it is rocky, not sandy. It's called Bačvice beach: it is crowded, but not unpleasant. The water is crystal clear and there are some nice bars along the shore for refreshments and maybe a good tuna salad.
 
Bacvice beach in Split
There isn't much to do in Split, aside from walking around. Split is like an open-air museum, where occasionally you'll enter a two-thousand-year old structure. I found it interesting fascinating that the purpose of certain buildings is not certain: it sheds an aura of mystery to the old town. I know that I could have kept walking around for days, learning new things and enjoying the atmosphere of a town that's truly unique.
The town centre of Split
 
 

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Painfully Discovering Sarajevo

As you may know,  I backpacked part of the Balkans last June. One of the places I was most excited to visit was Sarajevo. I was really curious to see how the different cultures of East and West met and perhaps collided, the Turkish influence in the middle of Europe and the multiculturalism of a place that has had a troubled yet undoubtedly-fascinating history.

Pidgeon square in Sarajevo

Sarajevo is not an obvious tourist destination. People were puzzled when I mentioned that I would be spending quite a few hours on a public bus just to see it. Most people have no idea of what Sarajevo looks like, and neither did I. Pictures made it unreal, impossible to visualize, and even more so for the many images of war that I saw as a child on Italian news programmes. The terrible war that ravaged in the 1990s is always on your mind when you visit such a place, and casts a dark aura on a city that may otherwise be splendidly recovering from the shock.
 
I must confess that my first impressions of Sarajevo were not the best. I arrived at dusk at the central bus station, which is located outside of the city centre, in a poorly illuminated area of the city with only commercial buildings around. The place looked a bit scary, to me at least, so I asked some other backpackers if they knew their way, and with difficulty we found the tram station. We were lucky and a tram driver immediately asked us, with a shout, to board the tram. We barely had the time to put our backpack down on our seats on the cranky old tram that an inspector came on the bus and threatened to make us pay a fine for the ticket that we didn't have. After a long explanation,  half-seriously and half-jokingly he let us go. Not the greatest start, you might recognize, but after a walk in the town centre I changed my mind and started to get the vibe of the city.

The old bazaar area
 
The following morning, with shops open for business, I went back and started to elaborate on what I was seeing. Baščaršija, the old Ottoman neighbourhood, made me feel as if I were in an older version of Istanbul, one that now has vanished. The bazaar with its wooden shops, the brass utensils, the tulip-shaped tea glasses, the cushioned seats of restaurant and cafés, everything reminded me of Turkey. I found the area even soaked of that nostalgic aura so typical of Istanbul. I would say that this is the main - and almost the only - touristic area of the city, yet I enjoyed it very much. I peered inside craft shops with dusty cushions and observed Bosnians having ćevapčići at eleven in the morning. This cherished Bosnian dish of short sausages served wit pita-like bread, chopped onions and sour cream is what you should have if you have time for only one Bosnian meal.



A café in Baščaršija
 
One of the most evocative places in Baščaršija is the main square, affectionately called Pigeon Square, with its Sebilj, an Ottoman-style fountain dating from the 18th century. Minarets in the distance and bazaar streets starting in all directions, it is a busy place, buzzing with life.


Pidgeon square


My favourite place in the old Ottoman neighbourhood  is nevertheless Gazi-Husrev-beg mosque, and in particular its peaceful courtyard and the stunning ablution fountain. Built in the 16th-century, it is perhaps the most important Ottoman building in the country. It suffered significant damage during the siege of Sarajevo, because the Serbian forces notoriously targeted religious and cultural buildings for symbolic reasons. It has been splendidly rebuilt and it is now buzzing with worshippers and tourists alike. I sat there for at least one hour, reading a book under the shade of a tree or taking notes on what I was seeing.
 

The fountain of Gazi Husrev-beg
Outside of Baščaršija, Sarajevo is a regular European city, with shops and cafés, churches and parks. I passed by Catholic and the Orthodox Cathedrals, as well as synagogues and mosques, as proof of the multiculturalism that pervades the city. Even though religious hatred has been one of the sparks of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, nowadays the different religions seem to coexist once again. Among the most striking monuments there is the Eternal Flame, a memorial to the victims of the Second World War in the form of a flame that is always burning.

Sarejevo Cathedral and shopping area
 
Sarajevo is surrounded by hills, so much that everywhere you can see streets going uphill. During the siege that lasted a record 3 years and 10 months, the snipers were positioned there and on the infamous sniper alley. Hand-painted signs would warn passers-by: "Watch out - Sniper!".

Street going uphill in Sarajevo


At the hostel where I was staying they kept telling us to hike to the Yellow Fortress. I was having a tour of the town with a Bosnian young man whom I befriended together with some people from the hostel, but he wasn't sure of what we meant by yellow fortress. We climbed to a viewpoint that might have been it. From there you can see all of the city and the white stones of a war-time cemetery. Thoughts of how trapped and scared one must have felt during the long siege came to my mind. These white stones are such a presence on the Bosnian territory that when you stoop seeing them you may guess that you're getting close to the border - at least the ethnic one - with Croatia or Serbia.


A cemetery in Sarajevo

I didn't even go to the tunnel museum, preferring to wander the city. I even visited a traditional Ottoman house, as well as a Srebrenica massacre exhibition that I found really interesting and touching. Sarajevo is a city that is trying not to forget the atrocities of the 1990s, but to move on while preserving the memory. It has a young population, with some cool bars and restaurants. Perhaps it is not as rich or as hip as Croatia, but it is catching up with the rest of Europe.
 
 
 
The Irish pub
 
 
As I came out of the Srebrenica exhibition, I saw an Ottoman military band - a mehter - playing in traditional costumes in front of the Catholic Cathedral. As a matter of fact, it was part of a music festival celebrating friendship between Bosnia and Turkey. It was interesting to see people waving Turkish flags, since the Ottomans were once the invaders. In the exhibition I saw a war-time video that explained - to me at least  - the otherwise-inexplicable hatred towards Bosnian Muslims. Bosnia is, together with Albania, the only part of the Ottoman empire where a large number of people converted to Islam and stayed in the country after the fall of the empire. In the footage, a Serbian general said that he considered Bosniaks traitors for giving in to the invaders, religiously and culturally.
 
 
 
Sarajevo it is the kind of city that is more interesting or fascinating than truly beautiful. There are places that you can definitely call beautiful of course, but in general it is an austere city, especially outside of Baščaršija. For example I was surprised that the famous Latin Bridge, where archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed, looked so dull.
 
The Latin Bridge
Sarajevo is not as aesthetically pleasing as Dubrovnik, that's for sure. It is gritty and unattractive in some parts, but it does have the charm of a place that is still a bit uncharted, touristically speaking. I didn't expect it to blow me away from an aesthetical point of view, and it didn't for the most part, but it is definitely an intriguing city.
 
View of Sarajevo from the Yellow Fortress
 

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
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