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

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?

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