Bosnia: instantly one of my favorite places I’ve ever been

While I “only” made it to Mostar and the surrounding area (a detour to Montenegro got in the way of coming back to Bosnia for Sarajevo and more), I cannot say enough about Bosnia and Herzegovina. I ended up extending my stay by a night, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my trip. If you didn’t have Bosnia and the Balkans on your radar, add it. Now. 

I got in to Mostar, Bosnia mid-afternoon, my first place I showed up without a reservation of somewhere to sleep. I rang the bell at the Hostel Majdas, which had great reviews online and which I’d luckily starred on my map. I was ushered into the courtyard by a young woman who sat me down at one of the picnic tables, handed me some colored markers and some fresh cake, and asked me to create a colorful nametag for myself while she went off to make me hot tea. Living the life much?

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The row of shoes outside the hostel entrance (you’ll definitely be asked to remove shoes inside any house in Bosnia)

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The outside courtyard of the hostel where everyone eats breakfast


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Inside the hostel living room on the first night

 

Once I was all checked in, I browsed some of the travel books on Montenegro and Bosnia she had on a bookshelf and got ready to go wander out to see the Stari Most bridge, the bridge that was built in the 16th-century, destroyed by Croat bombing in 1993 and then recreated from the original stones in 2004. On the way out, came across an Australian girl curled up on the couch drinking tea and a Dutch guy with long hair. Talked to them for a bit (turns out the Dutch guy is traveling for 2+ years, spent 5 months in Mexico, and is only planning to stop when he runs out of money), and then the Australian girl ended up joining me to go out and wander.

The main street of the city (from what I can tell) is much more lively than I expected. Kebab shops and little cafes line a cobblestone street, and you eventually get into a really cobblestoned street just before the bridge (which, by the way, is really hard to walk across since it’s so steep and the stones are so slippery). There are actually elevated stones across the whole thing to help you stop from slipping. It was nice to see it at night and see all the mosques lit up across the city. There are 26 of them – all destroyed during the fighting but now rebuilt. On the way back, we stopped in to a quick place for cevapi – basically beef and lamb grilled meat sausages served with onions and pita and ajvar (red pepper paste). For 5 euro total, we got a massive plate of it and brought it back to the hostel to eat outside. On the way out, a table of 2 middle-aged women and men stopped us to ask where we were from. Sadly, I’ve realized my instant reaction is to want to say “American” and expect jokes or semi-insults. Instead, one of the women lit up and talked my ear off (in a great way) about how her family now lives in New Jersey and how excited she was that we were visiting, and offered help with any part of the rest of our trip. It’s the first time I can really remember in traveling that someone was so excited to hear from an American and so welcoming and surprised about my own time in their country.

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Back at the hostel, a huge group got back from a tour organized by the hostel, raving about everything they saw. Again, the beauty of traveling without plans: I decided on a whim to stay an extra night and go on the tour the next day. It’s just too worth it, they kept saying.

So, just like that, after an amazing homemade breakfast in the courtyard made by Majda herself, the group of us (including the Dutch guy and the Australian girl) got in Bata’s van and headed outside the city. Before that, though, I did stop by the Sniper’s Tower in Mostar, an old bank that was used by snipers and professional killers in the Bosnian War to terrorize the Bosnian part of the city. While I didn’t climb up to the top because I was short on time, it’s an eery place to be even on the ground floor. There’s politically-related street art all over, hanging TV boxes left over, and main stairwells still intact, but missing all railings. On the top floor, casings of the bullets still lie there. The building was chosen because it’s one of the tallest in the city and easily separates the city. Hearing our guide later that day tell us all about how best friends of his from school became enemies of his overnight, shooting down from the roof of this building to try to kill him just for being from a Muslim family, gives you chills. The city itself is very much divided, but not by the media-propagated line of the river. Instead, it’s where this sniper tower lies and then beyond. To this day, every year the government from Sarajevo (mostly made up of Croats) decides which buildings in Mostar to renovate. Yet, every year, it’s the buildings where the Serbs and Croats live that are redone, and the Muslim area is left in complete disrepair. Buildings are bombed out, rubble left, and gunshots left on walls.  Continue reading

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Brač: life on the biggest Central Dalmatian island

Brač (pronounced “Bratch”) is the largest island off the coast of Split, but also one of the less touristy (compared to Hvar and Korcula). It’s mostly known for 2 things: its white stone and the Zlatni Rat beach, which were about the main highlights during my 1 night stay there with a Croatian family. 

The easiest way to get to Bol (the city on the other side of the island where I’d booked a small AirBnB room in the home of a Croatian family) from Split is probably by the once-a-day direct ferry. But since I didn’t want to wait until afternoon to take the ferry (it runs at 4:30pm during the summer and 4pm the rest of the year), I got the 9am catamaran over to Supetar first, and then the 1 hour-long bus from there across to Bol. Let’s just say, I think I underestimated how much of an ordeal it would be getting there, just kind of floating with the idea of “island=small” in my head when I booked the room without much research. Oh well. The bus ride allowed me to see a lot of the piles of white stone I’d read about (mostly after my visit). Did you know that a lot of the stone from major monuments (like the Reichstag in Berlin, Diocletian’s palace in Split of course, and even the White House), comes from Brač? Pretty cool.

Boats in the Split harbor

Adorable family on the ferry. Ferry was a lot like the Marin-San Francisco one back home.

“Old Boys Club” sitting around one of the bus stops in the middle of the island.

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Split: when a city doesn’t always satisfy expectations

Sometimes you get to a city and instantly know you’re ready to leave- that the main “story” you’ll get out of it is “well, I guess now I’ve seen it.” If you’re thinking of going to Split for more than just a stopover, below is my account of why this city for me was Split. I also considered titling this post “French tourist mecca.” Take it with a grain of salt.

I decided to head to Split because I’d heard good things about the city. Granted, this is all from someone who’s never been there. First mistake. And I admit that I can see how the city might have held a certain charm before it exploded from being just a transit hub into being a full-blown tourist mecca.

On my way to Split from Šibenik, I did get into a mess that I knew would happen at some point. Since I was sick of being that obvious tourist and repeating “Split? Split?” (insert name of city you’re trying to get to here), I did my best to check the signs on the front of each bus, and hopped on board the one I thought was headed to Split. Big mistake. Turns out, the bus was coming from Split. 5 minutes after we pulled out, the ticket guy got to my seat, checked my ticket, and said roughly and matter of factly: “Split? No. Zagreb.” Continue reading

Šibenik: small town with a gorgeous sunset

I started my stay in Croatia in Šibenik, which took a good 3 trains and a bus to get to from my Slovenian farm stay. The bus was supposed to be a train, and I’m not really sure why that short leg was replaced by a bus. If it had something to do with the refugees and border closings I’m not sure. But as soon as we got on and crossed about 2 minutes later, the police got on and asked for my passport. Now when you just got on a bus and don’t even realize how close you are to the border, that isn’t exactly the most comforting. But within a few minutes they brought our passports back (there were about 4 of us on the bus…) and we were on our way.


  
I got into Šibenik late at night, and when I got to the hostel the owner, a woman in her 40s or 50s, looked so relieved to see me, ready to close up for the night. She was very nice in broken English, though, and got me a seat in the back of her son’s car to go to Krka National Park the next day, the main reason I’d come. I chatted with some other travelers for a while and then called it a night when it started to rain.

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My stay out on a Slovenian farm

Well, I made it to my farm stay. And while the first steps off the train more than made up for the stress of getting out here and then beyond, I guess I can say I’m a bit disappointed. I knew trekking out here without a car might be a bit more stressful than it was worth, but I sort of hoped the friendly people, convivial atmosphere, and home cooked food would make up for it. Unfortunately, the owners were out all day until 3pm, so I’m glad I got here later like I did. I sat outside in the sun with the sound of goats and sheep in the background and wrote some long overdue postcards and waited for them to get home. Finally I heard some noise inside, so I walked up to the main door where the sign was now gone, past the family dog, and peeked inside. A blonde woman looked surprised and ushered me outside, asking why I hadn’t rung the bell. Because…why would I ring a bell if this looks like the reception desk?  

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Ljubljana: the hidden gem of Europe and hoping it stays that way 

I’ve only been in Ljubljana for a mere 4 hours and I can already tell I won’t want to leave. By happenstance, I got a couch surfing host while I’m here, and he’s already made the experience 100x better, not that Ljubljana needs it.
As soon as the bus pulled in, I raced over to the Hostel Celica (yes, the one that used to be military barracks for the Yugoslav army and now has been fully redone, each room by a different artist). I already should have known that a city that has this kind of place will likely be an interesting city. I picked up a bunch of information while waiting for my guy, including a “made by locals” map- which, by the way, is mostly about food, just the way I like it.

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Bled and and Bohinj: Paragliding and peace in Slovenia

Well, Bled, I showed up sick, looking forward to a relaxing few days by the lake, taking in the beauty and the swans. Getting off the night train from Worgl- which, incidentally was an experience since of course no other routes to Slovenia were open since Germany had closed its border except this 1:38 am train. No guards checked tickets, and each compartment went a different direction during the trip, so I wasn’t sure I was on the right one, especially since they’d also shortened the train. Finally at day break, we stopped somewhere called Lesce-Bled and I jumped off prematurely, choosing to walk 4km rather than take it on to Kranj and then take a bus back to Bled.
The walk itself was actually really scenic- a nice walking and biking pathway by the road with emerald green rivers, nature, and chirping birds at 7am.

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Kufstein for the Almatrieb festival!

In Kufstein on Saturday, we got in just as the festival was kicking off. The little town we’d seen so quiet a few days before now was lined with tents selling homemade schnapps, food, honey, and all sorts of little trinkets. There was one big beer garden area, where everyone sat eating donuts and pastries with beer or Fanta. We watched rowdy, entertaining Austrian performances of men in suits chopping wood and dancing in circles. Another had young guys snapping ropes above everyone’s heads, standing on beer garden tables. Tons of pastries and beer flowed freely and it was quite an experience in a little Austrian town. Finally the cows started coming down and I made sure to get plenty of videos. This is really a thing? I loved it. After grabbing some local pear schnapps to go, we reluctantly headed to the train station, sad to leave this little town that had grown on us.

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Hiking the Adlerveg: Day 5 (Buchacker Inn to Pinegg)

The next day’s hike was definitely the hardest of all, as expected. It was marked a “black” trail in the ranking (which really only varies between red and black), and it does deserve that marking. We started off with about 1,000m almost straight up, usually with the help of iron wiring, steep steps, or just good ol fashioned uphill. It was fun, though, and if you’re decently in shape and not too afraid of heights, this might be one of your favorite days.

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Hiking the Adlerveg: Day 4 (Kufstein – Buchacker Mountain Inn)

Highlights: the Eagle Statue, Weiner Schnitzel, and a quiet inn

After finding out about the Almatrieb festival, which is when all the cows come down from the mountains for the winter and get all dressed up and people celebrate in town with drinks and music and markets, I mostly decided to come back to Kufstein for Saturday and cut the 7-day hiking plan short. I just couldn’t pass this up. So, after breakfast downstairs at the inn, we headed out for another 2 days (Stages 4 and 5) before hoping to take a train back to Kufstein Saturday morning.

Stage 4 was gorgeous. We set out walking across town to the bus station, where we got tickets to Unterlangkampfen, where the trail started. It wasn’t fully clear where to get off the bus or where the trail started, but luckily we got off by a church, and that was just about where the trail started.

We headed straight up for a good while, with views back down on the towns below. We even came across a water source and an old bench on the way up.

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