Sunday, August 13, 2017

Exploring Lokrum

Arriving in Dubrovnik with my short-term travel companions made the journey much more fun and relaxing (for me) than expected.

By the time I had trudged up a million stairs with my oversized suitcase to my Airbnb, I was ready to meet up with my family and do some exploring. My Aunt Nancy, cousins Emma and Wendy, and their friend were on a tour of Dubrovnik from Split, and I was thrilled to break up my solo-adventure with a little bit of company and family time. Its also comforting when traveling alone to know that someone is expecting to see you on a certain date.

Though I'd already walked Dubrovnik's city walls during my last trip in 2015, the views remain jaw-dropping. Surprisingly, it wasn't overly crowded, and wasn't nearly as scorchingly hot as I had heard it could be. We were only able to spend about two hours together though, and after my high of excitement in Bosnia mixed with a quick family visit, I was pretty sad when they left. It was Dubrovnik's summer festival, and as I took myself out for a delicious dinner right on the water and looked around, I didn't see anyone else on their own. Families, couples, and as evening turned to night, drunken groups of college-aged partiers, surrounded me. I started thinking that while it was a wonderful city to explore alone during the low season, my alone-ness wasn't quite as fun when surrounded by so many people with all of their friends.

Anyways, the next day my mood continued a little bit.

The crowds and heat were overwhelming on the main streets, and I had to get away from it. In my last post about Dubrovnik, I wrote about seeing Lokrum from the wall and learning about some of the folklore. Because of the season (and my time limit), I didn't make it to the island before, and on this day in particular it felt like the perfect getaway. It was. From crowded, sweaty streets to a tranquil, lush island, I couldn't have been happier. Any negative feelings I felt about being alone disappeared as I walked down paths with peacocks as my companions, explored the monastery and botanical gardens, and hiked up to the fortress.

I felt unbelievable healthy during this entire trip. Most days including some sort of hike or long walk, and I felt much more tuned into my body than usual. To contrast, at school, lunch is at 11:30. On days when 4th grade has the last lunch line up time and when I have recess duty, some days I don't sit down until 11:45 and then am sprinting out the door at 11:55 to get myself ready for recess. Because of that I've been very well trained to gobble down my lunch as fast as I can without any regard to whether or not I'm actually hungry. During my trip, I ate whenever (and whatever) I wanted. Some nights all I wanted for dinner was ice cream, other times (like this evening) I had dinner twice. After getting back to Dubrovnik, I stopped for a very delicious carrot salad (sounds weird but it was tasty), went back to nap for an hour or so and get ready for my night out, and then went out for another dinner of spaghetti with clams (which was so good that I had the same exact meal another night). By the end of the trip, though like I said, I ate literally whatever I wanted, I had lost about 5 pounds- my kind of vacation!

On this particular day, my hike was to Lokrum's Fort Royal, which provided a great view of Dubrovnik's Old Town.

I love how in Europe, these ruined old fortresses aren't roped off and forbidden; you can climb around and explore to your heart's content as long as you're smart! To give a little bit of background, Lokrum is first mentioned in writing in 1023, when the Benedictine Monastery was founded. King Richard the Lionhearted was shown hospitality on Lokrum when nearly shipwrecked during the crusades, leading to him donating money to build a cathedral in Dubrovnik. So clearly, it's been around for a while. While the fortress appears incredibly old, it was build almost 800 years after the monastery! Crazy!

The Benedictine Monastery is one of the main reasons I wanted to see Lokrum, as I found the old stories about it creepy and amazing. Well, at the Visitor's Center, I was surprised and thrilled to find... THE IRON THRONE!!!! Again, I'm going to say go back to that other post for more about Game of Thrones filming in Dubrovnik, but it's pretty amazing. Every time they show Kings Landing now on the show, I think "I know that spot!!!" Along the walls are Lokrum's old stories and pieces of its history, along with a map of the GoT filming locations and videos from behind the scenes. It was very unexpected, but very welcome. After the monastery, I stopped for a piña colada at a shady outdoor bar.

From the bar I could see a rocky beach, which looked like the perfect place to get some sun and maybe swim in the Adriatic.

When I say rocky beach, I don't mean covered in little pebbles rather than sand, and calling it a beach is really a stretch. The "beach" is really an area of spiky, craggy boulders and cliffs at the edge of the island where people come to lay out and swim. I found myself as flat of a spot as I could, out of the way enough that I could (hopefully) leave my bag safely if I decided to jump in. As I settled in, a group of preteens kept racing in and out of the water, passing me as they went. They were taking turns climbing up to the highest point they could find and leaping into the water, seemly without a trace of fear. As I watched, a group closer to my age joined them, along with what appeared to be the preteens' parents. They were all having a blast, but to me it looked so scary! I watched for probably a half hour before asking on of the dads how the jump was. "Scary," he replied, but still went back for a second and third jump.

Nobody seemed to be drowning or hitting rocks on the way down, and I had yet to see anyone fall off the cliff, so I worked up my courage and decided to make the jump myself. I talked to the group closer to my age, and they all agreed- though very scary, jumping was well worth it. In a maybe-overly-trusting move, I gave one of them my phone and asked him to take a picture. Rather than running away with it, he took some great pictures for me, and he and his friends let me come out with them that night! A day of adventure and a night out with new friends cured me of any traveling-alone blues for sure. I ended up making the jump twice- and am definitely, completely terrified of heights, but maybe a little bit of an adrenaline junkie.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Tour Day in Herzegovina

While there are countless benefits that I could go on and on about to traveling alone (and probably will soon), I briefly encountered one negative aspect during the first leg of my trip. 

I'd researched all different tours that I was hoping to book, but when I finally went to book them I couldn't- they required you to sign up with at least two people! I was really bummed at first, but it ended up being a blessing, as what I did find was a million times better.

In a previous post I commented on the exceptional hospitality at my hotel; when I asked about tours outside of the city at the front desk early my first morning, I thought I was out of luck. I'd waited too long and hadn't planned ahead. But I was told that calls would be made, and they'd find me a tour- and they did! One of the manager's also ran Airbnb's with his girlfriend, and she was taking a couple out the next day!

I woke up that morning ready for action, repeatedly telling myself that spending the day with strangers was definitely something I could handle. As we made our way to the first stop, our guide (I'm going to call her A) filled us in on some of the major points of Bosnian history, especially focusing on the most recent war for independence. Hearing it from someone who had been born in the midst of it was heartbreaking. I won't get into too much for the sake of her privacy, but her perspective was honest, thoughtful, and open-minded. 

She shared that her high school had been divided between Bosnian and Croatian students. 

On student council, she and her friends had tried to encourage the school to mix the students for at least one class, but they remained separated. We learned about her grandma's old stories from the days of Tito, as well as how the war still impacts her life every single day. Though her outlook was positive, it was fascinating (and sad) to hear so directly about life during and after such a terrible time in their history.

Blagaj Tekke

Our first stop was at Blagaj Tekke, a Dervish monastery built between 1446 and 1520 along the Buna River. Because it is situated directly next to the cave holding the source of the river, the water is pure enough to drink! Immediately upon stepping out of the car in Blagaj, a sense of peace unfolded around me. The monastery is built at the base of the high cliffs surrounding the river. Though nearly 100 degrees elsewhere, the temperature seems to drop the closer you get, making it cool and comfortable.

Though a major tourist attraction for the area, the Tekke is still a holy place. Before entering we were required to remove our shoes and cover ourselves. There were long wraps to cover our legs (for both men and women), and scarves to cover our hair (women only). Walking through the serene building feels like you're in on a secret; the prayer rooms aren't always in use, but they were during our visit. I felt like we were tip-toeing around something very private, though as I mentioned, it is a tourist destination. The rooms are decorated with the typical Ottoman rugs, and hold volumes of religious texts.


Our second stop was at Pocitelj. During the middle ages, Pocitelj was the center of administration and governance for its county, and was supposedly built by Bosnia's King Stjepan Tvtko in 1383. What makes Pocitelj especially special is its architecture mixture of medieval and Ottoman. Between the 14th and 18th centuries, the city was ruled by the Hungarian empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire. The architecture of an old rule is often destroyed to make room for the new, but in Pocitelj, you can see elements of all clearly, as it was well preserved. Because of this, Pocitelj is on UNESCO's Tentative List for classification as a World Heritage Site.

Perhaps because it was so hot, we were some of the very few visitors to the small city, and at certain points the only at the citadel. While the hike up the uneven, slippery stairs was a struggle, the view was lovely, and you probably know how I feel about ruins by this point (hint: I love them). A told us about the history of the town, as well as the 1992 bombing that nearly destroyed the city, and landed it on World Monuments Watch's 100 Most Endangered Cultural Heritage Sites list in 1996 and 1998. After our hike up to the top, we treated ourselves to ice-cold pomegranate juice and little cones full of fruit on the way out of town.

Kravice Falls

The final stop was the one I was most excited for: Kravice Falls. The falls consist of a lake surrounded by about 20 waterfalls, some over 80ft tall. Most importantly, YOU CAN SWIM THERE!!! After a steamy day of climbing fortresses, nothing felt better than jumping into the water and scaling up the rocks to get right under those falls. It was a great bonding experience for me and the other tour-ees (though they were a couple, and there's a chance that I was a huge imposition...), and A later told us that she was terrified watching us climb around like little mountain goats the whole time.

As a longtime waterfall-calendar enthusiast, I was basically in heaven the entire visit. The falls themselves are hugely impressive; nature is truly incredible. I may have bought a waterproof phone case specifically for this visit; though I have never been a selfie person, I probably took 800 on this vacation... oops :) In addition to swimming, climbing, and taking pictures there were some brave souls who we also watched jumping off the falls into the water below. How they managed to miss the rocks and shallow parts, I'll never know, but I was only courageous enough to watch.

While swimming, we met two Americans who shared that they were traveling and playing at different venues around Europe. I intended to go and watch that evening, but without internet access, I didn't think I'd have a great chance of finding it. Well, on my way out for one last exploration of the city that night, I heard some great music coming from near the Crooked Bridge (another cute Mostar bridge). As I got closer, I recognized the name of the bar not only from one of my favorite songs, but also from my earlier conversation: Black Dog Pub. Drawn by the music, I headed in and saw one of the guys I'd met playing along with what turned out to be a Serbian wedding band! Unfortunately, my new friends had been double booked, but lucky for me I got to hear not one but TWO awesome bands play. There was some additional craziness of the night, including finding the worlds cutest kitten, being aggressively invited to breakfast by a homeless man, and finding a ride for the next day to Croatia. Overall, that day exploring Herzegovina was one of the most interesting days I've ever had!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Why I Loved Mostar

I spent most of my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina in a kind of giddy delirium. 

I was so happy from the moment I stepped off the bus from Split, Croatia and into the astounding heat of Mostar. Giddy, sweaty, and exhausted. I'm not proud to say that my first act in Bosnia was a nap. But once I was a little more rested, I headed out to enjoy twilight in the lovely little Old Town. The streets are paved with slippery, worn stones, meaning I had to watch every step and was still always on the verge of falling down. This was the first time I heard the call to prayer as it rang out through the city, punctuating the comical soundtrack of my walk; INXS, Cindy Lauper, ACDC, along with scattered local songs played in all the restaurants. After my walk, I stopped for dinner and met my first local; as the owner of a little restaurant on the way out of town took my order (more like I took his recommendation), he asked where I was coming from. When I told him, he launched into  perfect Italian, having lived in Tuscany for 4 years, along with having spent years in Portugal and Germany as well. Though I am constantly surrounded by bilingual or trilingual children, meeting multilingual people will never cease to impress me!

Mostar's main tourist attraction is the Stari Most, a large bridge built in the 15th century that crosses the Neretva River. 

Sadly, most of the Old Town and the bridge were destroyed during the war in the early 1990s. Since then, Bosnia has worked to restore the city and preserve what they could of their history. The area surrounding the bridge is a true example of cultures coming together; "pre-Ottoman, eastern Ottoman, Mediterranean, and western European architectural features" (according to UNESCO) comprise the area, and is "a symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation, and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities." From the bridge, the view is lovely; deep green and aquamarine water rushes below, and you can tell just from looking that it must be freezing. To one side, the dome and tower of a mosque protrude towards the water, and I knew right away that I had to find it before it closed.

Mostar is so small that it didn't take much time for me to find the mosque I'd spotted.

Dressed in a tank top and shorts, I removed a sweater from my bag and asked the woman selling tickets if this would be modest enough or if I should come back tomorrow. Surprisingly, she didn't even glance my way before telling me I didn't need it but could use a scarf to cover my legs if I wanted to. I did, but am sorry to say that it didn't last long. I've climbed the towers of Notre Dame and the Sagrada Familia, as well as Milan's Duomo, and while the 88 steps to the top of the mosque's minaret had nothing on those cathedrals' steps in terms of number, I have never been more claustrophobic in my life. That said, the view was worth the stair-terror. The sun was setting as I reached the top, casting the most perfect golden light on the bridge, city, and surrounding countryside. Once the only other guest left I had some time to myself at the top to just surrender to the peace and joy I felt looking out. My peace was short-lived, however, once I realized I had to get back down to the ground somehow. Oh my gosh, the spiral of the staircase is so tight and steep that I'm not joking, I actually crawled back down the stairs (obviously, scarf removed from my legs). 

On my second day, I was literally a woman in love;

in love with travel, with new opportunities, with history, with independence... I didn't want to let one second go to waste or to miss one moment (except during my daily nap- hey, it was really 100 degrees most days, a nap was necessary). Because the town is so small, there options aren't overwhelming, so I walked into every single museum I passed. The Hamam Museum was a small and didn't take long to go through, but provided a glimpse into the bath-house ritual that is so prevalent in the Ottoman Empire, and I was lucky enough to experience in Morocco. The Old Bridge Museum was a much longer event. I was up and about early that morning, and was the first visitor to the old tower. When I arrived, the man selling tickets was sweating bullets, having just climbed the five-story, fifteenth century tower, I assume to turn on all the lights. As he struggled to catch his breath, we made small talk about the city, and he asked if I had a student ID. I didn't and told him I was a teacher, not a student. He informed me that he had been a history teacher, which of course led to a conversation about Mostar's troubled history and A 45 MINUTE LECTURE on the various religious influences and occupations Mostar has seen in the last 500 years. While it was interesting at first, there wasn't no opportunity to interject, and I thought it might never end. Luckily (though I really mean it, it was very interesting) a couple came through and needed directions getting to the second tower and I was able to rush up the stairs and through the museum. 

As I mentioned, Mostar has preserved its history as well as it can, with the Old Bridge area of the city on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites. 

The Muslibegovic House was next on my list of places to see. I love to see how people once lived, and the Muslibegovic family's home is like a snapshot in the life of a (wealthy) 18th century family. You can actually stay in a few of the rooms of the house, and I was thisclose to canceling my reservation at Hotel Kapetanovina to book myself a few nights there when I realized the one night there cost more than three at my current hotel (and I'm very glad I didn't cancel because I absolutely loved my hotel; more in another post). There are various displays throughout the home, including clothing and household objects, preserved texts, and a little meal scene with dressed-up mannequins (I think they told me that men and women would really have eaten separately, but I may be wrong; I heard a lot of things that day). Carefully woven rugs overlapped across the floor with contrasting patterns, and each room was lit only through the many windows that lined each wall. One room I found particularly intriguing was a nursery on the second floor where the mother was basically banished to for a while after a baby was born (well, maybe not banished, maybe it was more of a haven than a dungeon...). 

At one point that day I found myself on a quiet road right behind the busy Old Town. 

I passed a stunning cemetery full of pure white headstones, each surrounded with vases of colorful flowers. They were so lovely that I stopped to walk through, which is not something I can say I typically do with a cemetery (excluding Milan's). The first one I read shocked me, as the man it honored would have been only twenty years old when he died. As I continued to look, now openly crying, I realized that nearly all of the stones were etched with the same year: 1993. Some were as young as 17. I don't want to get to much into the war in this post, but Mostar was heavily attacked in 1993, and the evidence remains visible throughout the city. The cemetery wasn't the only remnant of Mostar's violent past. Shells of roofless buildings taken over by weeds and graffiti stand between shops and restaurants immediately outside the quaint Old Town, peppered with bullet holes.

I went back to the hotel after that, drained from the sadness of the cemetery as well as the heat. 

I had visited every site I could think of, wandered for hours, and needed a rest. Above I mentioned loving my hotel; when I walked in on the first day, the manager greeted me by name as he held the door for me to pull my bags through. That was just the first surprising moment of hospitality I experienced in the next few days. I headed down to the front desk after my rest that day for some advice. It was approaching closing time, and I needed a little advice about which old house to visit. When I showed the woman behind the desk my two options, she gave me a strange look and told me that the home of the 16th century Turkish judge that I was interested in seeing was actually where she grew up. It's a museum, a preserved monument, and she lived there. Whattttttt? Anyway, she suspected it would be closed but called her mom to give her a heads up that I was on my way. 

The Kajtaz House isn't easy to find; it's surrounded by tall walls, hidden away on a pedestrian street. 

When I finally found it, I rang the bell twice before a sweet older woman who didn't speak a word of English came to the door. She let me in and walked me through the courtyard, speaking maybe Bosnian the whole time. A man was repairing concrete in a small living room, and she handed him a paper with what I'm assuming was a message from her daughter asking him to let me in. He stopped his work in a disgruntled manner, and asked me if I wanted any information or just to walk through. I told him I didn't want to bother him, I was fine to just look through and could read up on it later. Absolutely not, he responded that I'd be much happier if I knew what I was seeing, and proceeded to give me a little of the house's background. He pointed out the different parts of the home that were designated for men or women, and proudly brought up that his family's home was protected by UNESCO. I left him to get back to his work, and admired the richly decorated rooms, artifacts, and especially all of the gorgeous textiles. When I finished, he stopped his work again to entertain me with stories from growing up behind the walls, and about how much he loves the privacy that provides. 

So much of what made my stay in Mostar wonderful were the people I talked to. As a community they had been through so much sorrow and tragedy, but were warm and welcoming, always willing to stop and talk with strangers. Though the Kajtaz House was closed, I was given nearly an hour of conversation in addition to my brief solo-tour. Each time I passed the restaurant from the first night, the proprietor would call out, "the Milan teacher!" and ask me about what I'd been up to that day. In only a few days, I felt settled and like a part of the little city.