‘Welcome to Jordan’ – A Christmas visit to Amman

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Not long after dad died, my thoughts went to Christmas and how I didn’t want to spend another Christmas at home, just me and mum, especially when our last 3 Christmases had been spent in Nursing Homes. I also didn’t particularly want to spend Christmas in country that went Christmas mad either, so I focused my thoughts on a none-Christian destination. It wasn’t hard to settle on going to Jordan, as I had wanted to visit for many years, so we booked a flight, a hotel and then figured out the rest later.

Arrivals. If you are travelling from the UK, then unless you are planning an epic overland trip, you’ll be flying in. The main airport is the Queen Alia International Airport (QAIA) and the only direct flights from the UK are via Heathrow with either Royal Jordanian or British Airways. If you want to fly from any other UK airport you can change via London or somewhere else in Europe, we flew with Royal Jordanian from Manchester via Copenhagen, but a quick Skyscanner search should give you lots of alternative options. Ryanair is also starting to fly to Amman as well as Aqaba, although they wont be connected to the UK, but you could potentially pick it up in a number of European cities, that’s if you’re on a tight budget and like adventure!

The country itself borders a number of interesting and potentially volatile neighbours, so some borders are closed or limit the number of travellers coming in. You could face difficulties if you wanted to cross over from the Syrian, Iraqi or Saudi borders, do your research first, but it can be done quite easily through the Palestine/Israel border. Popular routes can be through Eilat at the Southern end of the Dead Sea, or at King Hussein Bridge (Allenby) crossing at the Northern end of the Dead Sea. If you cross overland through Israel/Jordan border though, you will have a stamp in your passport that could stop you visiting other countries in the region, as some countries don’t look favourable on an Israeli passport stamp.

Unless you have a Jordanian passport, you’ll likely need a visa in order to enter the country. You can apply via the Jordanian Embassy in London or if you purchase a Jordan Pass it includes your visa as well as entry to a number of museums and sites in Amman as well as Petra, and the Wadi Rum. So if you are staying a week or so and plan to see as much as possible, it will be well worth it. It was my Christmas present from mum and on arrival, you just show your Jordan Pass barcode,  they stamp your passport and that’s it you’re in. Welcome to Jordan!

The main airport is about a 40 minute drive from the city centre, there are public buses available to get you into the centre of the capital as well as many taxi’s, they should charge around 22-25 JOD. Our hotel arranged for a taxi to pick us up, but another time, we just got a taxi outside arrivals and they charged the same price, the taxi’s should be yellow or white vehicles and then you know they are legit. The other option is car hire and all the usual car hire companies are based at the airport.

History Bit. Jordan’s location in the Middle East, located on the Arabian peninsula in the South West corner of Asia, means it’s played a very important part in the history of the holy lands, its history is extensive, complex and completely fascinating, with evidence of settlements dating as far back as 8500–4500 BC. The capital was originally called Rabbath Ammon by the Ammonites who settled here in the 13th Century BC, slowly changing its name to Amman over the years and still to this day remains the most populous city in the country.  In the early 7th Century, Jordan integrated into the new Arab Islamic Empire, which incorporated what is now Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, Palestine, North Africa and areas of Southern Spain. Many rulers and empires have come and gone over the centuries but when the Ottoman Empire gained control in the 1500’s they lasted for 4 centuries until 1918 at the end of WW1. The occupying nations at that time, which included Britain redrew the borders of the Middle East and by 1928 King Abdullah was given full autonomy of the area that was then known as Transjordan and in 1949 it was given its full title that remains to this day  Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Sights. I will stick to Amman for this post and write up my adventures in other parts of the country separately.  But more than likely, if you are making the trek to Jordan, you will want to see more than just the capital, in fact you must, but don’t rule out Amman either, there is enough to fill a couple of days here.

All ticket prices for the main sights in the country, can be found on the Official Jordan Website, so you may want to check whether it would be worth getting a Jordan Pass instead, but you need to book this before you land in the country.

Roman Theatre – built around 2nd century AD this theatre is pretty impressive, built into the side of a hill, it’s 3 tiers high with enough seating for 6000 people.  If you have the strength and long enough legs, climb the very steep steps to get to the top for great views, and then slowly work your way back down and explore the Folklore museum on the floor. The theatre is still used today for functions, so check local listings when you are there, I can imagine it would be pretty cool to see a live event here. Both the theatre and museums are included in the Jordan Pass, and don’t miss the I LOVE AMMAN sign out the front by the main road too, the perfect photo opportunity!

 

Roman Citadel – If you stand with your back to the Roman Theatre and look up and slightly to your left, you’ll see the highest hill in Amman – Jebel Al Qala’a. Up here is a large area to explore full of ancient remains, some dating back to the Bronze Age as well as Roman and Byzantine periods. There is a lot to see up here, including the Temple of Hercules with its impressive large pillars and podium which you can see back down in the heart of the city.  The Ummayad Palace spreads out quite far round the back of the Archeological Museum and is full of places to explore. You get great views across the city as well, we spent quite some time up here, a really fascinating place. Both are included in the Jordan Pass.

 

Taxis are everywhere up on the hill and there is a car park available too if you are brave enough to drive in the capital. Myself and my 71 year old mother though, walked (with a rest stop in-between) from the theatre and citadel and then back into downtown quite comfortably.

Rainbow Street – This large street is a destination both during the day and night, and is choked full of bars, cafe’s, restaurants and shops. There are some lovely places to stop and eat, the snack shop Falafel Al-Quds, is really popular, you’ll probably be able to spot it due to the queue forming at the window, whilst we were there we were told the King had popped in the previous day for his lunch, its reputation is that good. There are some other good places to eat and drink here too, which I’ll pop in the eat and drink section below.

The Jordan Museum Jordan is hilly, but walkable if you have decent shoes, we walked slowly after lunch from Rainbow Street, down the busy King Talal Street, past a miriad of shops selling all kinds of produce, from shoes, pipes, and live birds to the main museum of the capital. Open 6 days a week, (closed on Tuesdays) from 9 am to 4 pm and Fridays from 2 pm to 5.30, it’s the go to place if you want a comprehensive overall view of the history of the country. Highlights include one of the oldest human statues in the world, the Dead Sea Scrolls and a really great exhibit on energy and water consumption and how the country manages both, with water in short supply. There is a lot to see here, in fact we didn’t have time to take it all in, and would have stayed longer if we could. There is also a free bag and coat store, clean toilets and has a £5.00 entry fee

 

King Abdullah I Mosque The reason we didn’t stay as long as we’d like at the Jordan Museum, was we wanted to go see the only mosque in the city that permits none muslims to enter and is only open certain hours of the day. When I was there back in December 2018, the hours were 8-11am & 12.30-2pm Sat-Thu and it was about £2 to enter. This includes the museum as well as the main buildings and use of the black robes knows as an abayas, there is also a charity bazaar ram jammed full of all kinds of crafts as well as free tea on offer (of course!). We were lucky in that our taxi driver who we hailed outside of the Jordan Museum was also a tour guide, although his business used to include trips to Syria and Lebanon, which he can no longer offer, so he delights in taking tourists round his home town instead. For an extra £5 he took me and mum on a personal tour of the mosque himself, even introducing us to the head Iman, we struck lucky, he was a great guide. He also explained that the reason it is the only mosque opened to none muslim tourists, is that its the best preserved in the city and the only one worth a look, no other reason. With a capacity for 10,000 worshippers, a minaret that shoots out a laser beam 1 KM into the sky and a beautiful octagonal prayer hall topped by a magnificent blue dome, i’m really glad we made the effort to go.

 

 

Eats  – On our first day after visiting the Citadel we built up an appetite by taking the steep climb up to Wild Jordan, but it was worth it. This centre not only houses a great cafe with exceptional views overlooking the city, but there’s a wonderful shop highlighting hand-made crafts which supports local communities. There is free wifi and and 4 hubs, should you need somewhere to chill or upload photos. You can book eco-tours here including guided hikes and handicraft workshops, book a stay in one of the lodges or just learn about the rural communities in Jordan that are being supported by the work here. Oh did I mention the food, it’s really delicious, using fresh local ingredients, with vegetarian and vegan options, along with smoothies, teas and strong but tasty coffee.

All guide books recommend the oldest restaurant in town, and its a must for an authentic Jordanian experience.  Called Hashem don’t bother dressing up, you sit down on plastic chairs, a waiter covers your table with plastic and before you can say falafel, your table is loaded up with flat breads, dips, salad, unlimited tea and of course falafel. Once you’ve finished, you pay, the sheeting is scooped up and more than likely the table is ready to go all over again. We had a great dinner here, paying around £4, it was full of locals and tourists alike, as well as photos showing visits by King Abdullah II and family.

Probably our favourite restaurant we visited was Al Quds (Jerusalem) we went twice, its super friendly, with a high fiving head waiter who took great care of mum and me. There is a huge menu full of traditional Jordanian food, with a few veggie/vegan options and the most delicious assortments of desserts, my favourite being Kunafeh a sticky pastry stuffed with cheese and sprinkled with pistachios.

Alcohol isn’t available at most traditional restaurants, but is available at some hotels, tourist bars, and in supermarkets.  I was happy to sip mint tea with dinner, but I did fancy trying a local beer, so we went to Books@Cafe just off Rainbow Street to sample a pint of Carakale, Jordans first ever craft beer.

Coffee and Cake  –  Thick Turkish coffee is available everywhere, just one small cup will fire you up for a good few hours of sightseeing. I particularly liked the coffee served at Wild Jordan, but i’m also a fan of green tea, so had to visit Turtle Green Tea Bar located on Rainbow Street, here they have an extensive tea and coffee menu as well as cakes and good wifi. As for traditional pastries, we tended to visit local bakeries, asking the staff for good suggestions and then loaded up, we would snack as we explored the city. If a smoothie is more your thing, Amman had quite a few juice bars dotted around the downtown area too, but often we would just be handed some free mint or ginger tea from a local stall seller as we purused the markets.

Other sights – An art space and gallery Darat al funun holds exhibits, talks, as well as films and it would be a good place to really immerse yourself in modern day Jordanian culture. Known as the Caves of the Prince – Iraq al-Amir is located on the outskirts of the city, here you can explore historic caves and ruins from the 3rd Century BC dotted into the hillside among the olive groves. If I return though,  I would also love to visit Grandma’s House Beitsitti, this is a cooking school/restaurant, where you join a cooking class run entirely by women, learning how to prepare a traditional 4 course Arabic meal and then you all sit down to eat it, sounds amazing.

Always Be Polite – Thank You -‘shukraan‘ Hello ‘marhabaan‘ Goodbye ‘wadaeaan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Weekend in Andorra

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Starting 2019 as I mean to go on, by exploring the world!  I have done some travelling since dad died, but havent felt up to writing, I am still figuring stuff out and looking at ways to combine more travelling and earning a living now I don’t need to be based in the North West UK anymore. But since last summer I have been back to Greece, also to Albania and Jordan, so I will aim to write those travels up soon. For now though, I have just landed back from Country 51, Andorra!

Arrivals

Andorra is one of 5 countries I believe that doesn’t have its own airport, so travelling in by car or bus is your only option, as there aren’t any trains either! The nearest airports are in either Spain to the south or France in the north, I flew in with Easyjet to Barcelona in Spain and I flew home from Toulouse in France. Most airports in the UK have regular and inexpensive flights to Barcelona, and you can fly into Toulouse from Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Manchester and London, so lots of options.

It’s so easy to then get yourself to the capital Andorra la Vella as Andbus provides regular direct services from both airports to the main bus station, taking around 3 hours and around €33 each way. Andorra is located high up in the Eastern Pyrenees, so the views as you make your way up to the capital are pretty spectacular if it’s not too foggy! The Andbus’s were on time, clean, USB ports everywhere and although there was supposed to be WIFI, they do warn you it could be temperamental, and I wasnt able to connect at all during both journeys. Other departures that I saw on the board at the Estacio Nacional d’Autobusos d’Andorra were Madrid with Alsa Bus, Lleida (also in Spain) with Montmantell and I think Eurolines do an overnight bus to Porto in Portugal too. Both border crossings in and out of the country were quick, we didn’t stop at all, which was great, meaning no delays, but also no stamp in your passport either. The bus station itself is clean and modern with toilets, vending machines, lots of seats and plenty of lockers, great if you’re only staying a short while, it was €3 for 24 hours use.

History Bit

I have to admit, I had zero clue about the history of the country before I got here, so I had some research to do. Settlements have been found in this region high up in the Pyrenees mountain range as far back as 9,500 BC, as hunters found places to rest whilst exploring the often inhospitable surrounding landscape. The area that is now Andorra was originally created as a buffer to keep the Muslim Moors out of France by the then leader Charlemange in the late 700’s AD. By the 1300’s the 16th smallest country in the world, decided to share allegiance to both the Spanish and French princes.  This role goes to whoever is the Bishop of Urgell in Spain and whoever is President of France, at the time of writing this, its Emmanelle Macron.  In 1993 the result of a referendum decided to reduce the power of the co-princes and establish separate branches of government and it also joined the United Nations. The only country in the world with Catalan as its official language, the total population is around 77,000, it’s never had its own currency, and although not part of the EU, it does use the Euro.

Sights

It has to be said, that unless you are mad on duty free shopping or skiing, there isn’t one outstanding must see building, church or museum. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth a visit by any means. The capital Andorra la Vella is friendly with lots of quaint little back streets, surrounded by epic mountain views and lots of duty free shops, so if you fancy a bargain on a go pro or iPhone this is the place. I was on a tight budget as usual, so I just fancied a wander along the streets, to drink good coffee and find a few places of cultural interest. A good place to start is at the Tourist Information Centre, a modern stand alone building where the shopping street Avinguda Meritxell meets the Place de la Rotonda. Here you can get free maps of both the capital and the country as a whole, pick up some souvenirs, book a tour or get bus timetables, the staff speak English and are really helpful too.

Casa de la Vall This is the place to visit if you want to learn some history about Andorra, this 16th century building is one of the oldest and most continuous seats of parliament in Europe. It is open Mon-Sat, closing at midday but opens again at 3. Unfortunately, even though I got there at 3 on the dot, it never opened on the day I visited, when I asked at the Tourist Information Centre, they very kindly rang as they presumed it should have been open, but it was indeed closed for the day, despite the sign outside saying differently. So I never got to explore it during my stay. Even if you don’t want to visit inside, still head over as there is a great viewing area out front.

Staying in this historic area a short walk from Casa de la Vall is a small but beautiful Romanesque building, otherwise known as the Church of Sant Esteve.  Quite a simple and calm interior, the outside is pretty impressive and worth a visit.

Avenue Meritxell is one of the main shopping streets in the capital, lined with clothes, gadgets and jewellery shops, if you’re in the market for a bargain, spend some time window shopping along here. Andorra is exempt from excise duty tax, so you’ll find things much cheaper than at home. Also along this street are lots of restaurants, some souvenir shops and the large Pyrenees shopping mall.

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Heading East along the Avenue Meritxell, you will eventually come to a junction and if you turn right the shopping street, becoming a pedestrianised area, with more malls, restaurants and bars. Whilst I was here, it was 12th night, and the avenue was converted into the Three Kings Parade all covered with sparkly Christmas lights and floats. It was memorable for maybe some of the wrong reasons, as the children threw boiled sweets from the floats preceding the three kings arrival, they were like missiles flying through the crowd, I’m sure there will have been a few black eyes the next morning, gosh they hurt!

The Salvador Dali clock called ‘Nobility of Time’ is found here too at the point where the Avenue Meritxel crosses over the river (Pont de la Rotunda) as well as the impressive Andorra La Vella sign, where you must get a photo as proof of your visit, of course! (especially if you didn’t get a passport stamp).

Exploring the capital with a stop for some tapas and coffee pretty much took up day one, so on day two, armed with a bus timetable I headed off to another town nearby.

Encamp – One of the main ski resorts in the country, its only a short 20 minute bus ride from the capital.  Bus L2 leaves regularly and costs €1.85 for a single trip or if you plan on visiting more places, a €4 ticket will give you a day pass.  Catch the bus on Avinguda Príncep Benlloch, there will be a yellow bus sign painted on road, or just keep a look out for skiers stood at the bus stop, as the ski resort at Encamp has real and artificial snow, so attracts skiers 365 days a year. If you are already staying in Encamp, then there is a free Funibus that travels through the town, taking skiers direct to the cable car station.

You don’t have to be a skier at all to enjoy a visit to Encamp, there are still enough things to fill a couple of hours. The small town has a few museums such as the Casa Cristo Ethnographic Museum a 3 story refurbished rural house, giving visitors a real in site into Andorran life at the end of the 19th century. If cars are more your thing, there is also the National Automobile Museum all walkable from the bus stop.

A real delight though, was the area in the town called Les Bons a historical village with amazing views across the valley, it’s a bit of climb, so have some decent footwear on. There is a 12th Century Church the Sant Roma up here with a small altar with beautiful murals and an impressive defense tower too.

The big draw to the town though is the stomach clenching (if you’re not great with heights that is) 6KM Funicular and one of the longest cable cars in Europe. Its €12 for a return journey taking just over 15 minutes each way and transports you to the top of the snowy mountains and the Solanelles ski area.  It does stop half way, but I wasnt quite sure what was there, other than the option to hop off half way to go hiking, as there wasnt any snow there or a rest area, so I stayed on with the other skiers till it terminated at the summit.  As well as skiing and snowboarding, there is a coffee shop and restaurant area both with outdoor seating, so none skiers like me can grab a hot drink (or beer), wrap up and enjoy unbelievable views. Well worth it and was probably the highlight of my trip to the country.

With only a few daylight hours left of day 2,  I decided to walk to the village of Santa Colomba, to the west of the capital, it was only a 25 minute walk from my hotel, although I did see the L1 bus driving along the main road, if your hotel is a bit more central than mine was. The reason tourists head to this village is to view the Pre-Romanesque Santa Colomba Church with its unusual circular bell tower the only one of its kind in the country and the multi coloured wooden bust inside.

If you are visiting between 1 June to 31 October and are short on time and car-less, a good idea would be to board one of the various Tourist Buses. They offer 6 different routes with audio commentary in Catalan, Spanish, French and English.  They cover all areas of the country, including the epic landscapes, the best of the Romanesque architecture and the main museums, I think I would have used this had I not visited in January for sure.

Coffee and Cake

Fleca Font appears to be a bakery chain, as I spotted a few dotted around. They are simple, nothing fancy, but they seemed friendly, the waitress spoke English and they had a good selection of pastries and decent coffee and free wifi.  There is one right by the Church of Sant Esteve, it was a handy place to rest my feet, upload some pictures and recharge with an Americano. Another coffee shop in the capital that provided a good caffeine fix was Santagloria and although not the best coffee in the world, its worth grabbing a drink at the coffee bar atop the mountain if you take the cable car in Encamp.

Eats

Although a german burger joint wouldn’t normally be high on my list for places to go eat when visiting a, well, none German town, I was drawn to Frankfurt Chester because I could see it served local Andorran beer which was on my list of things to try. The place looked inviting too, with lots of seats by large windows, so I ventured in, ordered a bottle of local beer and a delicious huge plate of Patatas Bravas, I spent a good hour people watching, the total cost being just over €7. I really fancied visiting La Birreria for some local beers too, but once again, it was closed on Sundays.

Another place I really wanted to visit was Veggies World in the city centre, it didn’t open until 7PM, so I held off eating and made my way there for just after 7, but on arrival, the place was still closed. It didn’t look like it was opening any time soon, there were no lights on and the chairs were all stacked up, I was too hungry to hang around, and never had time to make it back during my stay. To stick to a tight budget this time, I bought lunches from the big supermarket SuperU in the city centre and stocked up on the impressive and large breakfast I was served at Hotel Cervol where I was staying for the weekend.

Others Sights – I really wanted to visit the one and only Andorran UNESCO site Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley. 9% of Andorra is a designated world heritage area, covering forests, lakes and mountains and promises spectacular scenery and wildlife. Buses are reduced in the winter months, and none were running close to the start of the valley on the Sunday when I was there. I also read that some of the hiking trails were more suited to the summer months and as I wasnt really kitted out for all-weather hiking, I didn’t venture over, but I have definitely put it back on my list for a possible return.

Andorra is a unique little place, it absolutely cannot compete with its neighbour Barcelona for architecture, cathedrals, museums and nightlife, but it does have its charm and the mountain landscape is breathtaking. I am really glad I visited and wouldn’t rule out a return in the summer months with my hiking boots to see more.

Always Be Polite – A few phrases to go armed with – Hello ‘Hola’ – Thank you ‘gràcies’ – Yes ‘sí’ – Goodbye ‘adéu’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Highlights of Herzegovina

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I rarely book organised tours for a bunch of reasons, usually I am on a tight budget for one and I like to explore places on my own, occasionally joining a free city walking tour if I want to learn more. If I am somewhere a little more off the beaten track or there is a unique experience that I can budget for though, then sign me up.  In the past I have done an organised hike up a glacier in New Zealand, a bike tour down the outside of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii (pre current eruption of course!) and a trip to see the Pandas in Chengdu in China.

With mum and myself only having 48 hours in Bosnia Herzegovina last month (Sept 2018), sandwiched in between Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia, we wanted to get the most out of our stay and see as much of the country as possible. I researched online and kept seeing the same company pop up with really good reviews, a local company operating out of Mostar called Mostar Travel. They offered a range of tours based around Mostar, as well as day trips across the region, so we booked on the Discover Herzegovina in a Day Tour as it seemed like exactly what were looking to experience, at 8 hours in length and about 7 stops on the itinerary, with a 10am pick up time too, it meant we had time for a nice early morning walk and coffee around Stari Most beforehand.

Our guide Vedad picked us up right on time by our hotel in the old town and that’s when we learned we would be the only people on the tour that day, as the others booked in had decided they wanted only to visit the Kravica waterfalls, so Vedad’s brother who started the company was going to take them there instead.

Once casual introductions were over with, Vedad took us for breakfast on the outskirts of Mostar, to a popular restaurant called Dva Fenjera for a massive breakfast burak and coffee. Once refreshed (stuffed!) we all headed back to the car and our trip began following the Neretva River south.

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First up, not the most glamorous of sights to start with, but certainly an interesting stop was the Secret Yugoslavian Military Base. Mum and I found it fascinating, regardless of whether you have a historical interest or not, it’s located close to the small Mostar Airport and completely hidden from the main road.  A short walk off the main track though and you realise that tunnels have been carved into the local countryside to house airplanes, equipment and people, its dark, dank and full of rubbish, but was a compelling place to explore thinking of what activities must have happened here less than 30 years ago.

 

 

Back out in the sunshine and on the road, our next stop was supposed to be the town of Blagaj to see the Dervish house. Unfortunately so did 10,000 other people, as it was the one day of the year that a festival hits town, after trying to negotiate our way in to park, along with hundreds of other cars and large tour buses, we decided that even if we made it into the centre of Blagaj, the likelihood of getting to the Dervish house was slim. Although it was somewhere we really wanted to see, we admitted defeat and Vedad promised to take us somewhere else later in the day to make up for it, happy with the compromise, we did a quick ‘U’ turn and continued heading south into the heart of Herzegovina.

So our next stop was Bunski Kanali, a pretty countryside spot where the River Neretva which is the one that flows through Mostar meets up with the River Buna. It was on our way here that I began to notice the large numbers of vineyards everywhere, and made a mental note to research (or sample) some local wine on our return back to Mostar.

 

Once we had got the layout of the land, we continued to head south following the flow of the Neretva river until we arrived at the medieval town of Pocitelj. This fortified complex of houses, a mosque, a fort and a tower have been here since the 1400’s but was severely damaged in the Bosnian war. Since being placed on the list of one of the most endangered cultural heritage sights in the world though, many buildings have been renovated and it’s on the road to recovery. Vedad took us to the top by the tower and then gave us about an hour to explore on our own, we took our time admiring the views across the valley, peered inside the houses and the mosque, carefully negotiating the stone paths and buying fresh pomegranate juice and a bag of cherries from a lovely local lady.

 

Then we were off, back on the main road south, passing even more vineyards and beautiful scenery until we made it to Kravice Waterfalls a popular waterfall and nature area, with places to swim, eat, drink and sunbathe. Although many visitors were being brave and entering the cool but dazzlingly green waters, we decided to stay on dry land, and once Vedad had taken us down to the water’s edge, mum and I headed off along one of the walking paths for a bit of a nature hike. As it was approaching mid day and the sun getting rather hot, we spend our second hour back by the waterfall under the shade of one of the local restaurants, with a lunch and a local beer.

 

Ahead of the normal schedule because we had to miss out on Blagaj, Vedad decided to take us to the Catholic pilgrimage town of Medjugorje close to the Croatian border. The reason that so many people come here and specificially The Lady of Medjugorje Church, is that in 1981 a group of teenagers reported seeing the Virgin Mary in the town and the church ‘our lady’ refers to Mary herself. Since then, there have been a whole lot of other sightings, although none verified and some reported as hoax’s and the Catholic church itself is still undecided about giving it official pilgrimage status as yet. Although that hasn’t stopped the many bus loads of tourists visiting this small town, there isn’t much to see here other than the church and visiting the many many souvenir shops selling prayer beads, candles, key rings, t-shirts and whatever else you can print a picture of Mary and Jesus on.

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Our final stop was a windy drive up the side of Hill Fortica, where we sat and enjoyed the immense views across Mostar as our guide Vedad told us the story of the war and pieced together the story from his perspective.  He was only very young when the war was in progress but it was an event that effected his whole family and it made for a poignant ending to our wonderful day and has only whetted my appetite to visit more of this fascinating country. I must plan a visit to Sarajevo next!

 

Weekend in Mostar

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Bosnia and Herzegovina or BIH to those in the know,  was a place that I had been curious about ever since I developed an interest in the Balkans. It’s also a place that I associated with terrible news stories of the Bosnian war which appeared on the TV news in my late teens. On my return from Montenegro last year, myself and mum started looking at other countries in the region, and before we knew it, we had booked flights into Croatia and buses onward to this beautiful, mountainous war warn country.
ARRIVALS If you are planning to travel from the UK then you will have to get creative, as there are currently no direct flights into BIH from any airport in the UK. Sarajevo Airport has a number of daily flights from Istanbul, Munich and Vienna among other places, so you could go via there, the smaller but developing Mostar Airport has flights coming in from Dusseldorf and Stuttgart with more destinations being added soon I believe. Most people will travel overland like we did, coming in from the neighbouring countries such as Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia. The country is set up well for bus travel, with many daily options available from popular places such as Dubrovnik, Kotor and Llubjiana. You will be crossing land borders, so make sure you have some spare change if you want to put your bag in the hold and have your passport ready for the border crossing. I have used Get By Bus a number of times now without any problems and this was no exception. On this trip we based ourselves in Mostar, which is not too far from the Croatian and Montenegro borders, we took the bus from Dubrovnik to Mostar for €16 taking 3 1/2 hours (not including the 2 hour delay on departure) and then went home via Split in Croatia (it left on time!) which took just over 4 hours. Trains are limited in BIH, but it is possible to travel between the capital Sarajevo and Mostar, rail cc website is probably your best bet for further research. Both the train and bus stations are a short 10 minute walk from the old town.

 

HISTORY BIT Phew, well, its complicated that’s for sure, and I am definitely no expert on the region. Visiting Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia prior to this trip I have learnt many different perspectives on who did what and why regarding the recent wars and I’m still pretty confused even now.  Located along the Balkan peninsula, the Bosnia Herzegovina area has had settlements here since 10,000 BC, its been part of the Roman and then Ottoman Empires with Germanic and Slavic tribes all laying claim at some point. It was in 1929 that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed of which Bosnia and Herzegovina were a part of, and remained until 1991 when the country started to fall apart and the many resulting conflicts started. The Bosnian war lasted from 1992-1995 and from what I can tell speaking to locals and visiting a few museums in the area, the Serbians and Croats both tried to lay claim to the region with the Bosniaks stuck in the middle, a peace agreement was finally agreed and signed in Paris at the end of 1995.

There is still a complicated political structure set up today, and while BIH functions as one country, its kind of divided up into 3 provinces with the 3 presidents rotating duties every 8 months, or at least that is the current situation but elections are due later in 2018, so it could all change again.
SIGHTS The star of the show has to be without question the Stari Most or the Old Bridge, rightfully it has been given UNESCO world heritage status and is the reason for the name of the city as ‘most’ means bridge. Originally built in 1557 this stone bridge took 9 years to build, connecting the two sides of the Neretva river with massive towers or ‘bridge keepers’ flagging either side. An iconic image of the country, in 1993 the Croatians blew up the bridge and it became an even more important landmark once it was rebuilt in 2004, using the traditional Ottoman techniques with local stone. We walked over the bridge many times on our explorations of the town, taking care not to trip over the staircase like steps that are built into the walk way and the views of the valley and surrounding hills are stunning. There are many restaurants and bars that line the side of the river, affording great views of the bridge day and night as well as a great picture and vantage point a short walk south on the west side of the river. We got stopped by an ‘official guide’ on our first morning, who showed us his tour guide laminate, so he must have been official right? He took us to a scenic photo spot, gave us some ‘facts’ about the bridge, took our picture and then promptly wanted about £20 from us, luckily my mum firmly told him no, gave him some change and he reluctantly walked away, next time we should just bring our selfie stick! That was the only time on our trip to BIH that we ever had any issues, everybody else was friendly, welcoming and not trying to make a fast buck. There is also a Museum of the Old Bridge which is spread over 5 floors inside the Tara Tower on the east side of the river, covering the stories of both the original and restored bridges.
The Old Town of Mostar is just a joy to walk around, full of history, beautiful repaired buildings, lots of cafes, restaurants and shops selling lavender, clothes, pottery and gorgeous copper tea sets. I really had to resist my usual restraint of not buying souvenirs, but did weaken to buy a BIH Football shirt, which I am wearing proudly as I write this. There are lots of restaurants and cafes serving inexpensive local dishes and the most amazing thick Bosnian coffee which you can drink right by the river as you take in the breathtaking views and soak up the atmosphere.  Whereas some popular tourist spots rip you off for having the experience of a glass of wine or coffee right in the heart of the action, the cafes and bars along the River Neretva especially those with great views of the bridge were all decently priced and we never felt rushed to finish up and move along. Just wandering along the cobbled streets, drinking coffee and chatting to the local shop keepers was a real highlight of our trip.
You cannot fail to hear the many calls to prayer that calmly ring out across the city 5 times a day from the 30+ mosques in the city.  The most prominent and largest being the Karogoz Bey Mosque which is open to the public, as is the 2nd largest Koskin-Mehmed Pasha with a tower you can climb up for epic views across the city. Although we managed a good look around the grounds, the mosque was closed for prayer when we arrived to climb the tower and we didn’t get time to return, at least on this visit . Both mosques are situated in the old town and easy to get too by foot, just a short walk from the bridge.
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However you enter Mostar, via train, car or bus, one thing that is bound to catch your attention, are the war torn ruins of the many buildings that have either so far failed to be rebuilt or are purposely left as a stark reminder of the war that only finished less than 30 years ago. It makes for a thought provoking walk that’s for sure, there are free walking tours that can take you to many of the important sights, but you only need to walk a few streets away from either side of the river to get a good idea of just how ravaged this beautiful town was not that long ago.
Sniper tower is hard to miss, a former 8 storey bank, this pointed granite building looks out across the city, look for the hole blasted into the wall right at the top, this was the snipers look out point. Across the road from the tower is Spanish Square, now a popular meeting place, it was built in remembrance of the Spanish troops who died in the war, the impressive Moorish gymnasium on the corner of this main street provides some colourful relief from the other burnt out buildings nearby. A few streets back from this busy intersection is Santica Street which was the front line of the Bosnian war, Croatians on one side of the street and the Serbians were on the other, there is evidence everywhere of the full destruction of the past, but it also shows just how far this country and its people have pulled together to rebuild.

Biscevic House is one of many traditional Turkish Ottoman houses of which there are many throughout the region. This particular house is held in high regard in the country and even mentioned in poems and songs.  Dating from the 1600’s this house is now a museum and national monument and open to the public daily, we missed the opening times due to a packed Bosnian schedule, but its on my list if I am lucky enough to return some day.

Crooked Bridge As you wander through the town, look out for the mini Stari Most, which was built as a prototype about 8 years before the main bridge.  Overlooking the Radobolja River, locals set up stalls nearby and there are some nice little bars and cafes alongside it, it’s the perfect place to stop and chill.

If you fancy some more history about this wonderful country, its archeology, costumes and customs, then head to the Museum of Herzegovina open daily until 2pm. I have yet to visit a traditional Hamam (maybe when I finally make it to Turkey?) but if you want to learn more about this Turkish tradition of bathing, then the Hamam Museum is the place to do your research (closed on Mondays).

Coffee and Cake. Our first morning we sat outdoors at the Koski Basta Caffe in the fresh morning light right by the entrance to the Old Bridge as a sign advertising ‘Bosnian Coffee’ caught our eye. Located on the west side of the bridge, we were served the most delicious thick coffee with a small pastry, on a traditional copper serving dish all for about €3. Our second morning in the town we were tempted by the ‘sweet bosnian breakfast’ on the menu of Moon Star Cafe and Pizzeria right by the Hamam Museum. It was delicious, and a little cat came to join us for some of the bread we were eating. It had comfy outdoor seating with great views of the hills in the distance. For cake, on our first night we visited Caffe Amir as it was close to our hotel on the south end of Adema Buca Street. A lovely family run cafe that has been there since 1978, they do a great selection of coffee and teas and an amazing array of cakes with lots of outdoor seating, it was a great introduction to Mostar life.

 

Eats Our first nights choice was given a glowing report by our Herzegovina tour guide who used to work there, so we headed over to Hindin Han. This restaurant is based inside a restored mill, with an outdoor terrace overlooking a little stream. They offer local Mostar beers and wines and a great selection of cheeses served with delicious bread, there is a good selection of traditional dishes and its inexpensive and friendly, it was a good decision. We also visited Restoran Lagero this place has an outdoor terrace looking over the River Neretva with a great view of the Stari Most, we ordered a bottle of Bosnian wine and had home made date cake, although rather rich, it didn’t stop either of us from eating the lot.

Extras If you like an adrenalin rush (so not me then!) you can pay €25 euros to dive off the Stari Most, or if you just prefer watching other people doing daft stuff, then Red Bull hold a bridge diving competition in Mostar every year. Mostar is surrounded by hills, many accessible by road, Hum Hill is easily spotted from all across the town as it’s the one with the large cross on the top and can be hiked if you have the stamina. We were lucky to be driven to the top of Hill Fortica by our Herzegovina tour guide, which I will write more about in my next post, but the views back down to Mostar, the historical significance of the hill top and hair pin bends up the side of the mountainous road where rather unforgettable as was the whole Mostar experience and I can’t wait to return.

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Always be polite ‘Thank You’ – ‘Hvala’  ‘Hello’ – ‘Zdravo’ ‘Please’ – ‘Molimo vas’ ‘Beer’ – ‘Pivo’