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Balkan adventures – a shot of hot

It weren’t  ‘alf  ‘ot Mum  (the weather is never right)

On August 23 I travelled through four countries – Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Austria and the Netherlands. I was pretty tired by the end of the day and the end of a journey.  The weeks since my last blog gave me an appreciation of history, geography and the green revolution.

It all started for me when Martin was away in the UK and I decided to visit the world Horticultural expo – the Floriade in Venlo in the Netherlands. I have always liked Horticultural shows and have often attended the Saanichton Fair every Labour Day weekend (coming up).  Being an urban dweller the odd horticultural show puts me in touch with another lifestyle and my food source. The Floriade beats them all – it is a world horticultural expo put on every ten years in Holland. It is huge – covering quite a few hectors – there was a gondola lift going from one side of the exhibition to another. Lots of exhibitors and country expositions from all over the world except the English-speaking world (nothing from the UK, Canada, the US, Australia or New Zealand – all very agricultural countries). The Dutch exhibition had some educational elements – aimed especially at kids and scientific experiments on how agricultural – green labs, green walls and green homes will save the world, its water and feed us. Very sobering thought on how green (literally) developments will be the future sources of energy and beauty.  There were also the whimsical and aesthetic aspects of plants and plant life. I loved these heads and the green bicycles.


My friend Carolyn Herriot (Zero Mile Diet book) would have loved this place and probably camped out overnight there. The Floriade was a heavenly place for those who love plants and are interested in all the incredible things they are doing and could do for us.

Unfortunately my travel companion was not that interested. Taking Kerry to the Floriade was a bit like taking a two year old the British museum – not fun. She was not at all interested, plus it was hot (27C) and crowded. So she pulled and pulled in order not to have spend any time looking at green stuff  (I think dogs are colour blind anyway). I thought she would have enjoyed the walk and being outside but there were lots of people there so she was not a happy camper. If you are interested the Floriade check out  http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/gallery/2012/apr/11/floriade-2012-world-horticulture-festival-picture

It was a lovely day despite the heat and the dragging dog. It was also a lovely day cos Martin came home (yes the boat is home at the moment) from the UK – arriving about 10:15pm. But we were not together long as I left for the 7:14 train from Tilburg to Schipol Airport (Amsterdam) to catch my flight to Dubrovnik. Martin and I had our own separate adventures from then.

I flew via Vienna and Zagreb (Croatia) to Dubronik and met my friend Deborough at the Pile Gate of the old city. We were to stay in a swanky and very expensive hotel inside the city walls.

The Pucic Palace at 350 Euros per night turned out not to be a palace but a rather small room with a large bathroom, (decorated in the ‘Steam Punk ‘style a’la the movie “Hugo”) and breakfast for each of us. We did get a glass of sparking wine with breakfast. The towels were frayed, there was no fresh water, they did not change the sheets more than once (after asking), no flowers or fragrances, they were even cheap with the shampoo bottles. Poor Deborough was desperately disappointed as she thought it was such a beautiful hotel from the Internet pictures. It was also very noisy (one of the disadvantages of the old city) – church bells at 6:00 am, drunken young men singing their hearts out at 3:00am and the market set up around 5:00 am – so not a lot of peace and quiet. Plus it was hot and there was no air conditioning.  I must say that the view from the window in the night time as a bit like a scene from Romeo and Juliet, but the rest of the time it was chock-a-block with tourists.

Dubrovnik has become a victim of its own beauty and history – it is a UNESCO world heritage site. The historic walls, churches and alleyways of residential housing within a small Renaissance city are in good repair and cared for very well. The parts of the city within the old walls are free of cars (and it is a bit too hilly to bicycle) with pedestrian traffic only. The number of pedestrians was the biggest problem. The whole of the old city was a sea of people from end to end.  Every day three cruise ships would pull into town adding 9000 people to this old city state (population 42,000) The traders and the restaurants were really doing well but as a tourist I thought it was horrible. Not only was it full of people but it was also 36C.

The only time the city was truly lovely was about 6:00 in the morning when the warm air off the Adriatic was cooler and fresher, the streets were empty (except for a few traders setting up) and it was easy to walk around this extra-ordinary place. The churches of St Blaise glistened in the early morning light (St Blaise is the patron saint of veterinarians, ENT physicians and protector of Dubrovnik).  This was a very Catholic town, which contrasted greatly to our next port of call.

Dubrovnik was a city state founded about 1272 and functioned as part of the maritime trading system of the Venetian empire along the Adriatic coast for over four centuries. The Italians called Dubrovnik Ragusa – it ran as republic based on Roman codes for many centuries. Later it became a vassal of the Ottoman Empire (a very important player around the Balkans) and around the beginning of 1800 the city was taken over by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which ruled the city for more than a hundred years. During World War II Dubrovnik was caught between the Axis forces and the Free Yugoslavian Army – needless to say this action had long term consequences. As a part of the country of Yugoslavia, Dubrovnik continued to prosper as a tourist city. However the break up of Yugoslavia resulted in Dubrovnik being besiege for seven months in 1991 by the Serbian-Montenegrin Army. The war against Croatia was mercifully short and resulted in Dubrovnik (which was claimed by the Serb/Montenegro coalition as a part on Montenegro, being ceded to Croatia.

Funnily enough the Croatia Flag is very similar to the flag of the Netherlands – red, white and blue horizontal stripes with a red and white chequered shield in the middle. The flag of North Brabant a province of the Netherlands is also red and white cheque.  It would be quite confusing to a flag collector and a bit of research would I am sure find a link between Flanders and Croatia but I will leave that to someone else.

We spent three nights and two days in Dubrovnik, the end of each tourist day (we went into new town and visited several museums as they were very cool in every sense of the word) we went to the tiny beach just outside the city walls. It was wonderful to swim in the Adriatic – the only thing I noticed was that it was wet. The food was also good in Dubrovnik – lots of mussels, different kinds of fish and pizza everywhere. Wine was quite tasty and cheap. They had some specialty foods in the morning markets like orange peel and other fruits dried in sugar –not sweet but very zesty –  yum.  So we ate and drank well despite the crowds.

Our departure from Dubrovnik was on the bus ride from hell to Sarajevo aboard a Eurolines bus. It is only 250kms from Dubrovnik but it takes six hours, we set off at 1:00 pm and drove through the heat of the day (did I mention it was 36C) in a bus that had air conditioning that did not work, sitting in a seat where the sunshade had been torn off. I had a  “McGyver’ moment and used my trusty dragon brooch and eye-glasses pin to hang a towel and create a bit a shade. We spent about 45 mins crossing the border between Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia – my poor old passport was worn out it was shown to border officials 4 times – one time it was removed for review (along with everyone’s) which made me very nervous.  The lack of air and sun beating down on the bus made the journey from Dubrovnik to Mostar really miserable. It was only on my way back to Dubrovnik did I really appreciate the beauty of the Croatian coastline.

The bus emptied out somewhat at Mostar (more about that city later) and set off on a spectacular ride through the Dinaric Alps. A transplanted Bosnian (from Sarajevo to Edinburgh) told me that if you were to take a flat iron to Bosnia it would cover the whole of Europe. Apparently there are still bears and wolves roaming about them there hills!

We arrived in Sarajevo and went to the Hotel Michele where we received a wonderful warm welcome and for 105 Euros per night we got a suite plus breakfast just a little outside the old town.  Arriving at the end of Ramadan we wandered the evening streets full of young people (war babies – tall, fair skinned, aged between about 16 and 22 and all dressed up) to find some dinner – no luck as all the chefs were also on holiday. Alcohol, coffee and ice-cream flowed freely but we could not find anything more substantial to eat so we ended up on a convenience store buying wine, bread cheese and brochette for our dinner. We did sample the local cuisine –but I am not a meat eater, so was not interested in the local delicacy of roast lamb and meatballs. Deborough said they were tasty. I actually did not see any fish for sale in the town so lived on cheese and polenta. The beer was very good though – apparently Sarajevo has very good water (mountain spring water), which is used in the beer and also available at over 100 pubic taps around town. The availability of water was important in the siege and on our visit, as it was 36C in the daytime?

We went to all four places of worship – but we could not get into the Mosque as we had no head covering – they wouldn’t , according to the sign, let anyone carry guns into the Mosque either.

The synagogue was lovely, as was the Catholic church but the Eastern Orthodox church was to my mind the most beautiful, even though it was being repainted.

The next morning we set off to discover Sarajevo – its history and diversity of cultural and religion.  The war between Bosnia and the Serbs (1991 – 1995) was a TV news story that I vaguely remember. Do you? Canadian troops were dispatched to Bosnia in 1993 and joined the living hell of the people of Sarajevo. The Serbs wanted to ‘liberate ‘ the Serbian population living in the middle of the Sarajevo population. The end of the war resulted in a Serb enclave just beside the city – but this result was only achieved after a 4 year siege of the city and the loss of 15,000 lives to snipers killing anyone who was in the wrong place ( which was anywhere on the west side of the River Bosnia that runs through the city).  The Balkan war lasted from 1991 to 1995, and Sarajevo was under siege all that time. (No wonder they had so many babies – in a siege make love as often as possible because tomorrow you may die). Deborough was reading a book by a Canadian about the dangers of living in this town during these years called “The Cellist of Sarajevo” by Steven Galloway which chronicled many of the difficulties endured by the population.

Sarajevo was founded by the Ottoman Empire in 1461 it grew as a diverse market city in which many religions co-existed. The many Moslem mosques, Catholic churches, Eastern Orthodox churches and the Sephardic synagogues attest to this rich and tolerant culture. The Ottomans ruled Sarajevo until around 1870 when the Hapsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire took over. After the Grand Duke was assassinated in 1914(and effectively started World War I) the city became a battleground within the Balkans. The Austro-Hungarian influence on the city can be seen in many of the buildings and the tram system that was established in 1885. Sarajevo was a city to be possessed by many outside forces – now it is mainly populated by the Bosniaks, who have a very different attitude to their government than we do in the West. Certainly Bosniaks are disappointed in their current government, which they regard as corrupt and self-serving, but they have a joie de vivre after their war experience that spurs them to be very generous to their own population and have a c’est la vie attitude to life.

We visited Bosniak Institute, a private foundation that offered free admission to their huge collection housed in the restored 15 century Muslim bathhouse, this contrasted with the government museums that were closed because of lack of funding. We did visit the National museum that was open; it housed the 13th century Jewish illustrated text called the Sarajevo Haggadah. The Turkish quarter of the city had vibrant markets and restaurants similar to those of Istanbul – there is still strong connection with Turkey in the city. Many of the buildings had not been rebuilt after the shelling and many others (especially apartment buildings ) bore the scars of built holes. German is also widely spoken as many people had gone to Austria and Germany during the siege, but the Slavic language of the Balkans is the most common language we heard.

Did I mention that this alpine city (about 1700 ft above sea level) still registered 36C in the daytime and about 17C at night (thank goodness for cool nights)? The city hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics (maybe it should town twin with Vancouver), and there are still lots of winter recreational activities in the surrounding Dinaric Alps.  Sarajevo was very impressive (certainly worth a visit if you’re in the region) – it is hard to think that 16 years ago people were being killed trying to reach the water taps in the city. The city and the people seemed to have recovered, and I, for one, am impressed by the their resilience and resolve.

After a couple of days in Sarajevo, Deborough and I were scheduled to go our different ways but decided to visit Mostar, another ancient city before we parted. Mostar is in valley somewhat reminiscent of Kamloops – dry hills and arid landscape, but an important agricultural area – lots of vineyards and fruit trees.  When we arrived in Mostar after a relatively pleasant cool bus ride. I was conflicted about staying there or catching the next bus back to Dubrovnik (as my flight left for Dubrovnik and Deborough was booked out on a flight from Sarajevo to Budapest a couple of days later). After settling on a bus leaving the next morning back to the coast we decided to explore.

It was now 42C and the residents of Mostar were hoping for some relief from the soaring temperatures they had endured over the last three months. We went to old town and to the famous Mostar bridge – this was a 16th century bridge was blown up by the Serbs during the war (1992) as Mostar was also under siege for years. The bridge has been rebuilt by UNESCO and the divers are back jumping into the aquamarine water about 70 ft  below. There was also a mixture of cultures and religions here too – churches and mosques living side by side – the 5:30 am call to prayer followed by the 6:00 am church bells. I took refuge from the heat after putting Deborough on the bus back to Sarajevo and stayed in my air conditioned beautifully clean, cheap hotel room (Villa Fortuna) and watched an old movie on the TV (in English). After 6:00 I wandered back to the old town and found some dinner (again ho-hum food) in a restaurant looking over the river towards the old bridge. A lovely warm evening in a very special spot.

The next morning it was back to Dubrovnik and four countries in one long day.  The air conditioned bus and the huge view made the trip worth while, although we did have to show our passports four times at the border. The trip down the coast was spectacular, but the flight home wasn’t, although I would recommend Austrian Airlines. By the time I got to the Netherlands my passport was also tired!

By about 10:30 pm I was in Roermond (on the German/ Dutch/Belgium border) with my beloved Martin and Kerry. We walked back to the boat and I felt cool for the first time in a week. Martin had had his own adventures during my absence and he will tell all.

This week you will be treated to a ‘blog buster’ from us as Martin has written about his own adventures.  So watch for Martin’s missive too. Now a reality check – leaves are falling from the chestnut trees in Roermond, I lost my camera (after I downloaded my pictures) here, and we are leaving the Netherlands this week.  The end of summer is in sight 😦


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