Friday, September 18, 2015

Of Bridges and Grottos

The drive from Sarajevo to Mostar was nothing short of spectacular. We felt we ought to stop every few minutes to snap a picture. So we did. Quite often.

 Granted,it took a bit longer than 2 hours, but well worth it!

Moving from the valley through the Dinaric Alps to Mostar

The mists were just clearing from the mountains and it afforded a glorious sight
Mostar seemed to be far more frequented by tourists than Sarajevo.
Herzegovinian Graffiti. Interestingly, in English.  A testament to the tourist friendly nature of the town, perhaps. 
We saw busloads arriving from Croatia on day trip to this pretty little town, all converging onto the Bridge,Stari Most. Its an exact replica of the the original built during the reign of the Ottomans in the 16th Century. The old bridge was destroyed during the Croat - Bosniak war in 1993 and the reconstructed bridge was opened in 2004.  During the time of the Ottomans, It was the largest man-made arch in the world and was quite famous throughout the world. Even now, it is a beautiful bridge to look at.

The town pretty much revolves around the bridge and we didn't find much else to do there. We did, however spot a cliff diver threatening to jump off the bridge into the Neretva, and I'm sure, secretly, every one of the tourists was secretly egging him on. This however turned out to be a false alarm (either that or he was perhaps hoping someone would pay him money to dive and the tourists were being particularly tight fisted).
Don't know if you can see it, but the tattoo on is arm is of the Stari Most
So a coffee (and Toilet. Always the Toilet) stop later, we headed out to another place we'd heard was worth a look- Vrelo Bune.

This was meant to be our lunch stop and our last pit-stop until Dubrovnik. Vrelo Bune is the freshwater spring from where the river Buna originates, so we guessed it would be quite popular. However, it is one of those hidden gems that seem to be so secret that even the locals feign ignorance when asked about it. But, we are a persistent lot. Besides, we were hungry. And when you have a hungry brood, you are pretty determined to find a restaurant (preferably with a view, and hopefully with vegetarian food on the menu). The restaurant was well hidden but when we stumbled upon it, the view pretty much blew us away.
Enjoying the view as we munch on lunch
After a leisurely lunch - where our server was most upset that we wouldn't be trying the fresh fish, and a boat ride for young Pickwick, we heard of the lovely grotto we could ride into just upsteam (you can see the cave just above the waterfall) which is reputed to be as good as the blue grotto at Capri
Well, I haven't being to the blue grotto at Capri (despite having been to Capri, that thanks to some very un-Capri like weather), but if this is anything to go by, It. Is. Ah-Mazing.
Into the grotto using the ropeway

Clear blue water, nearly 25 metres deep
Our boatman, Ibrahim encouraged us to quench our thirst with the cool waters of the spring. We didn't need to be told twice, It was a hot day and everyone, pretty much dove in with both hands. It's so clean in fact, that when we asked the shops for water, he just pointed to the the spring flowing behind him, wondering why we needed bottled water when you had so much of it running free.
Part of  Blagaj Tekke- A Sufi monastery which stands close to the mouth of the Spring.  This is the Musafirhana
It was then time to head on to Dubrovnik if we even planned to make it before nightfall, and we bid a very reluctant goodbye to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The land of quiet beauty and people of immense strength.

Friday, September 11, 2015

When do the saints go marching in?

The route via a bit of Croatia
As we left Belgrade, we made an early start and headed towards the Croatia border to avoid (all together now...) the crowds. We'd be on Croat roads for a short while as we headed towards Bosnia. As soon as we entered Bosnia, The scene drastically. I don't quite know how to describe it. yes, this were greener, as if man hadn't quite exerted his influence on the place, but what really left us with an uneasy feeling were the abandoned, run-down houses. You could see these ghost houses-  for that's were they were, ghosts of once living, breathing active houses which were now mere shells of their former selves - every 200 meters or so for a good 50- 60 kilometres into the country.

A bit further in, nature completely closed in, leaving only the roads and greenery (which was beautiful) on either side before slowly, a bit further in, one could spot the odd restaurants, houses and petrol stations once more. The journey (If you ignored the ghost houses) felt like travelling through the Western Ghats in the monsoons. The Sava river merrily gurgled along with us and clouds rolled in through the hills.

We stopped along the highway at a motel for lunch. Great view, friendly staff and not a word of English between the lot of them. Led to a lot of hand gesturing and finger-pointing and sheepish grinning, but we ended up with a pretty decent meal of buttered rice, mushrooms, clear soups and fresh bread.

We entered Sarajevo by early evening - it was tucked away in the plains, surrounded by the lovely  hills. Our apartment was an interesting mix of the modern and the not-quite-making-it-there... The washing machine was a model of the sorts I'd last seen in the 80s and the the German microwave made frightening noises as it ran, but the Telly was a massive LED flat screen. We also didn't know quite what to make of the heavily reinforced and Padded front door or what looked like a bomb bunker with steel doors near the car park.
The Eternal flame memorial for those who lost their lives in WWII
The evening was pleasant enough for a walk and the rain had settled down to a more sedate British drizzle. As we walk down, I'm struck once again by the beauty of the older sections of the cities - Starigrad. Like many European towns, the central areas are strictly pedestrian and restaurants and cafes abound. As we walked along, we spotted a poster, and follwed the signs to an exhibition about the tragedy of Srebrenica. The exhibition showed not just photographs and first hand accounts but also played a couple of documentaries including 'Miss Sarajevo'. The images were pretty moving for us, but I'm afraid it was all a bit too much for young Pickwick. He ended u feeling sick and squeamish and we had to exit the place a bit abruptly. I feel rather sorry for the little chap, but I'm glad we made that journey - it was important for him to realise the price of war, the futility of violence, whatever the reasons, whatever the provocations.

The Sarajevo that greeted us the next morning was a Sarajevo that was eager to show us the famous Sarajevan resilience. After a brief history of the Bosnian-Serbian conflict, our guide walked us through various historical places, including the Latin Bridge - The spot of the assassination of Prince Ferdinand (the alleged trigger to WW I), the oldest orthodox church, Roman Catholic church and Mosque in Sarajevo (despite Bosnia having an overwhelmingly Muslim Population) and a unique shrine (of the 7 brothers) where apparently wishes are granted. :)
The Latin Bridge (in the far distance)
The Orthodox church and the statue of the naked man. Spot the real pigeons from the ones that are part of the sculpture...

The afternoon in our schedule was reserved for the 'Tunnel of Hope' - an 800 m secret tunnel that connect free BiH with Sarajevo during the siege of Sarajevo.
What's left of the tunnel
The house cat sitting on a (disarmed) landmine just behind the house
Not only did we see the entrance (n a nondescript house just meters from the airstrip which was controlled by the UN), we met Abid- One of the men who transported equipment and ammunition across the Tunnel. Abid, like most of the Sarajevans we'd met loved life, loved jokes (I guess a sense of humour is a vital characteristic if you needed survive four years of living in tunnels and being shelled by mortars or shot at by snipers every time your tried to cross the road) and loved to recount his adventures to those willing to listen.
The baa-lamb with Abid

From the tunnels we headed further on towards the outskirts of the city to Vrelo Bosna, a freshwater spring close to Sarajevo. What a beautiful, serene place (well, it was serene until our kids invaded it. After that it was all excited squeals and delighted giggles and disgruntled swans). Definitely a must see for anyone deciding to visit Sarajevo.
The water was so clear cold, you could see right to the bottom

More of Vrelo Bosna. We wish we could have stayed longer
Its amazing how much beauty this war torn country holds. As we made our way back to Sarajevo, We continued to spot shrapnel -pitted structures that seem to wear them like a proud badge of honour as it continued to house its inhabitants. Life, like they said, went on as normal.

The Sarajevsko brewery. During the siege, this was a vital source of water for the citizens of Sarajevo as a spring runs right under it. 
Our evening ended earlier than expected though, as the main street was packed with loyal BiH basketball fans that were throwing a hero's welcome to its young under- 16 basketball team that had narrowly beaten Lithuania to lift the European Cup the previous night.
Night Life in Sarajevo. The main streets are completely taken over by the tents and DJ consoles

A lovely, quiet Cafe bar near Starigrad - Zaltna Ribica. This was the entrance porch

Inside Zlatna Ribica or the Goldfish Cafe
Basketball and chess still seem to be a national obsession here (what a relief from the same cricket and football obsessed talk).
Some fast-paced street chess in action, with bystanders calling out 'helpful' moves
Tomorrow we mean to drive to Mostar in Herzegovina before arriving in Croatia. I hope all out hosts are as cheerful as the Sarajevans. This trip will then be a breeze!

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Belgrade Walking tour

Our apartment in Belgrade was right next to the city centre - A two minute walk from Republic Square. Republic Square is, pretty much where it all happens. The area around Republic Square is largely pedestrian and dotted with various eateries and watering holes.
Prince Mihailo (Mihailo Obrenovic III) Monument at Republic Square- His hand is allegedly pointing towards Istanbul, as he had expelled the Turks and freed the 7 sates of Serbia in 1862 and 1867

...with the local Pied Piper at is steps.
 I'd have loved to explore the food scene (especially Cevapi - the breakfast staple of the Balkans, I'm told), but didn't want to end up with a dodgy tummy in the first country we landed up in. So off we went to Vapiano - for lunch. We'd decided to take the walking tour of Belgrade after a hearty lunch.  It was much too hot for a walk, even at 4 in the evening. But our Guide- a lovely girl named Milinie assured us she'd take it slow, even for our little 4 year old.  Miline is a born and bred Belgradian and she joked, `I've belonged to four different countries and held four different passports but never moved out of Belgrade` It gives us an indication of the unrest and conflict that prevailed in these parts not so long ago.
There`s plenty to see for the history aficionado - but the fact that you see not one single structure standing along some of the streets that`s older than the 2nd World War, reminds us of the struggle of of the common Belgradian to just survive.  While we think of history as something to be read in dusty textbooks that happened to previous generations, here was a city that is still living it.

Along the walk we heard and visited about the Bohemian quarter of the city- Skadarlija where poets and thinkers gathered over Rakija to write, create and contemplate at Kafanas. Kafanas, Milinie explained to us was an all-encompassing drinking-and-eating-and-drinking joint which served you liquor until you were under the table. And then continued to serve you under the table.

At the home of Đura Jakšić, famous Serbian Poet, Writer and Painter
And in case you`re wondering what Rakija is, it`s the local brew, manufactured by practically every family in Serbia, from fermented fruit, particularly plum. In fact looking at the abundance of plum trees growing everywhere in the city (even outside our apartment window), I'm not the least bit surprised. And speaking of the foul liquid (believe me, you cannot  have more than 3 sips of this stuff before it burns your throat), Pickwick had his first sip of Rakija, much to my consternation,  from the Baa-Lamb`s cup. Due credit to the little boy for not spitting it right back out in our faces.
Belgrade Fort - we spotted the entrance to Tito's secret bunkers here (they weren't discovered until very recently, and quite by accident)  The Bunkers are currently sealed, but will be opened to the public short, so we were told.

The confluence of the Sava and Danube
As we walked along the streets we were handed out photocopies of banknotes - where we lost count of the Zeros, and technically made each of us billionaires- a stark reminder of the hyperinflation that gripped the country for nearly a decade, and its only now that the economy is slowly limping back to normal.
The Yugo. A car seen only in erstwhile Yugoslav countries. 
What does that do for the average Belgradian? If Milinie is to be believed, it just  means that they live life larger than life, if that makes any sense. They throw themselves passionately into whatever they do, be it supporting the local football club, or getting to work at 7 in the morning or partying til the wee hours of dawn.
Victor, The statue of the naked man. Controversial but a symbol of hope nevertheless
In the evening, we decided to wander around Republic Square and soak in the atmosphere.
musicians playing at Republic Square

The quirky boutique restaurant
We stumbled upon a lovely restaurant called `boutique` where I had one of the most sinful dessert cakes I`ve ever tasted. So, this chewy- gooey cake had: Dark Chocolate, White Chocolate, Coconut, Almonds and a few local flavours thrown in for good measure.The cake was representative of the Serbian spirit - we don`t know what tomorrow brings, so lets make the most of it now.
Sorry. Didn't have the patience to click a snap when it was all there. It was a miracle the snap was clicked at all.
We're headed for Bosnia next. Neighbours who're not on the best of terms (wonder why that sounds oddly familiar). But that's another blog post altogether. 

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Drobeta Tunru Severin and the road to Belgrade

This was an epic tour of sorts for us. We'd never travelled to any of the countries we were going before, we'd never been on a road trip this long and we certainly hadn't crossed these many borders in a single trip before. So, our itinerary was to cover part of the Balkans on a round trip from Bucharest and back.
Before we get to the actual trip, a bit about the packing. Each of us carried just enough to fit into a had luggage. Apart from that, there was a document bag and spares bag (the spares for the car, not for us). Food was to be made/ bought/ eaten/ cooked along the away- which might not seem like a big deal for most people, but considering we eat a vegetarian diet, and the Mum in law doesn't have any garlic - and we refused to listen to her suggestion that she turn Fruitarian during the course of the trip, we had our work cut out for us.
We left Bucharest early in the morning, to avoid the afternoon- evening traffic on the highways. Come weekend, no on seems to want to stay back in Bucharest anymore. The highways are packed with motorist either heading for the hills or the sea. We'd intended to stop at Pitesti and Cryova for a coffee and lunch break respectively before we hit out final destination for the night - Drobeta- Turnu Severin.
Lunch in Cryova was at this lovely joint called Trevi - lovely because they custom made our pizzas and Pastas (although the décor was a tad OTT, with everything from the Leaning tower of Pisa to the Fontana being featured in the restaurant), and the full flavours and the genuinely nice service staff made for a great lunch.
We made it to Drobeta by evening, and were in no condition to do anything apart from collapse in a heap in the air conditioned comfort of our room. The mercury had touched a blistering 40 on our ride over.  But dinner needed having. and a town, albeit small, needed seeing.

So, Drobeta TS, a small-ish town with a vibrant city centre. It has a series of lit fountains along the main city buildings. There were, of course, remnants of the communist era, like a residential/ commercial block with a worryingly massive crack running along the entire length of the building. But I seemed to be the only one losing any sleep over it. The townsfolk seemed completely oblivious to it, so clearly, I was overreacting. For a border town I've never heard of, It was pretty active with a surprising number of children running about.

The next morning we headed out to the border after an early breakfast (in an attempt to once again beat the weekend queues. Little did I know that would become our mantra for the rest of the trip)
The Route from Drobeta TS to Belgrage
The Iron gates bridge- the border from Romania into Serbia
We were greeted by perfectly pleasant Border Security Ladies who seemed slightly confused about the Indian Passport travelling with rest of the family, but otherwise waived us through. The road from the border of Serbia to Belgrade follows the Danube upstream and is one of remarkable beauty. You have the vast Danube flowing to your right, and you're flanked by mountains to your left.
The lovely Danube
 You make your way through a number of tunnels and nowhere on the road, despite constant signs warning you of potential landslides and a steady stream of traffic, do you feel unsafe - or maybe that was just my confidence in the baa-lamb's driving (okay, all of you who know the baa-lamb first hand can stop laughing now).

We would have gotten to Belgrade sooner, but the journey was so picturesque, we decided to stop at several places just to drink in the beauty.