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.

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