Monday, 24 April 2017

Mostar, Kravice Falls, Pocitelj, Blagaj & Sarajevo (again) - Bosnia (3)

Mostar is famous for its Old Bridge. The most interesting thing about the bridge was the choice of rocks for its restoration. It had a white smooth surface that was designed to slip the freak out of people. On a hot sunny day, we glided; not sure how slippery it gets when wet. The ascend was okay, but downward slope was tricky, even with the small stilts to break the slope. In fact half of the old town was covered in polished cobbles.

The next day we did a short drive to Kravica, or Kravice waterfalls. The 45mins drive through a few towns was very enjoyable, except for the nervous moments of crossing a very narrow and rusted bridge, where there was constant incoming traffic but we weren't convinced the bridge could hold 2 cars. There were only three other cars at the waterfalls - I love travelling low season.

Despite having seen 3 waterfalls already, Kravice falls was still pretty cool. 

Then we went back to Pocitelj, a tiny town by the river. When we entered the gates, our first reaction was: Game of Thrones - the winding cobble pavements reminded me of Cercei's walk of shame. The sleepy town was charming and serene; we climbed to both sides of the fortress walls to take in the view of the fortress, and from there a great view of the turquoise river that meandered its course around the rolling mountains. This was one of our favourite places of the trip.

Perhaps it was low season, none of the restaurants were serving food. So we pumped our tank and headed to Blagaj for lunch. To stretch our legs, we parked well out of town and walked towards Devish House with an empty stomach, hoping to run into a more local restaurant not targeting tourists. There weren't any. Just ended up at the first one by the river. Interestingly the menu was identical to the ones we saw in Mostar old town, just 20% cheaper. He had grilled trout caught locally at the river and I had a burger... coz I didn't want a lasagna. The fish was delicious, soft and succulent. 

The Devish House was a bit meh. Not that much to see but I suppose it'd be a good short trip from Mostar. We sat by the waters before heading back.

We wanted to stay away from Mostar Old Town, just weary of the same touristy crap. So we walked to the new city centre, passing some very run down buildings right next to spanking new governmental ones. The contrast was very interesting. We thought back to what Neno said in Sarajevo, perhaps the authorities couldn't identify the legal owners, just the city just lacked financial resources to renovate. We popped into a local bakery and had a super juicy meat burek fresh off the oven. Definitely high on the list of best burek - I think it just has to be eaten hot.

We waited for a table at Del Rio, which was fully booked on the Friday night. It was a modern restaurant with live music, clearly popular with locals for dates and small group gathering. There were good modern European dish options as well as some traditional stuff. We went for grilled pork medallion topped with caramelised onions and mozzarella and grilled lamb chops. Though not exceptional, it was very good - both meats were tender and well-seasoned, much better than what we had in the old town area. More importantly it had a great vibe and was good fun.

The following morning we made our way back to Sarajevo after breakfast in the apartment. Before stopping briefly at Konjic, we drove past Jablanica where it was famous for the  broken Neretva Bridge that was re-built by a movie company for their shooting. The original one was destroyed twice as a ruse and in a battle back in 1969. We could see the broken bridge dangling from the cliff from the roads, and there were a couple of viewpoints on the way.

Konjic is a small town and we stopped for toilet and snacks. The weather wasn't as glorious as it had been, so despite the glacier in the background, the old bridge was... like any other bridge.

The last 20min drive into Sarajevo was on a tolled expressway, with no other vehicles in sight. Needless to say he enjoyed driving that part the most. After dropping off the car and marvelled at the miracle of completing the 4-day road trip unscathed despite a few heart-stopping moments, we hopped on the tram back to city centre to check in.

We went to Zara iz Duvara for less touristy fare. That street was lined with small makeshift wooden shacks that ranged from small cafes to street foods to small eateries. The Bosnia stew and veal stew were delicious, hearty and flavoursome, and the friendly host chatted to us about hiking options in Bosnia as we wolfed down the food. 

Then we walked back to Old Town for desserts. It's been a week in Bosnia and we had not tried any baklava. There was a particularly famous baklava boutique called Dućan Bazaar, and they offered a traditional Bosnian baklava called Zhandar. The guy explained this particular type of baklava takes 4 days to hand make from scratch with hand-stretched filo pastry, and there is no written recipe for it, so very few shops still make them. It was indeed very special. The layers of filo pastry flaked and dissolved in mouth into buttery fragrance; it was so airy, like a breath of honeyed butter, followed by nutty perfume from toasted crushed walnuts, moistened by a thin layer of sweet kaymak (cream cheese-like). It was perfection: just sweet enough and not drowned by honey, good ratio of pastry and nuts. At £2 a pop it's like Pierre Herme macarons, the jewels of desserts, but well worth the money.

For comparison we headed to a regular Baklava shop, which offered a much larger range of sweet pastries, except for Zhandar baklava. We tried a chocolate and a pistachio one. They were alright, nothing like what we had in Dućan Bazaar, a tad too sweet, a tad too soggy and the nuts weren't as aromatic. Then again, these were only a third of the price...

He then went to see the Genocide exhibition in the centre of town. I gave it a miss as these graphic images are too impactful for me. He said it was a very interesting exhibition though, some explanation on the Srebrenica massacre and a few modern art pieces from the darker days during the siege.

After a short break, we were pumped for our second Escape Room challenge of the trip. We did one in Belgrade and aced it. So this time we picked the hardest one on offer, called The Bank Job. Our host said success rate was 25% for teams of 4-6, and said we should probably try something easier like Fox in a Box as there were only two of us. Nah. We're up for it.
It was an excellent escape room, design and puzzles were fantastic and very cleverly thought-out. We did it in 50mins - he's my perfect partner in crime:)

Dinner was booked at The 4 Rooms of Mrs Safije. And I'm so glad we went - it was a stunning restaurant; the cosy country-house style dining room was warmly adorned with chandeliers, wine-lined walls and shabby chic cabinets. The attention to detail was meticulous.

While his starter soup was good but not amazing, my scallop starter with saffron rice was beautiful, creamy with oceanic sweetness amplified by crispy seaweed salad. The lamb roulade was tender with a good rind of milky fat, paired with crispy potatoes. His monkfish fillet was firm but succulent, worked well with the shellfish bisque and grainy pea puree. All washed down with more big rounded local wines. It was a perfect dinner.

On our last day we had breakfast at the new city centre shopping mall before catching the bus to Tuzla. The 3hr bus ride was uneventful, not much to see now that we have driven along more exciting landscapes. The bus stopped near the huge shopping mall, about 10min walk from the town centre. We had to catch Bus 11 to Dubrave, then walk for 15mins to the airport. Since we couldn't really work out the bus timetable (but it seemed relatively regular), we decided not to bother with the town centre and had some lunch at the food court in the mall. 

The airport was cute - the shopping mall was definitely bigger. Even though we managed to buy a stamp, had a postcard from the walking tour, we didn't quite factor in the lack of a post box in the airport... so he charmed a guy at the car rental booth to post it for us - and it arrived today!

Our week in Bosnia and Herzegovina was incredible, absolutely sensational. The landscape has been breath-taking, people have been more than friendly, stories and history of the country tragic but compelling. 

Possibly one of my favourite places in Europe.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Travnik, Jajce, Martin Brod - Bosnia (2)

The drive to Travnik was relatively easy. We started off on the tolled highway before turning off to mountainous roads. It took just over a hour of very careful driving and going slightly under the speed limit to get to Travnik. We parked near the city wall, which thankfully also had toilets. The walls offered good views over the city.

Then we walked down to the old town for a quick lunch, and were back on the cevapi / pljesviska diet - 'Hari' had best google reviews and it really was quite delicious. The meat patty was super juicy and the kajmak was extra creamy. I think we preferred the burger to the sausage form. Although they say it's the same meat, but I find pljesviska less salty, had more bounce and much more meat juice.

Then we were on the road again to Jajce. The roads were trickier here around the mountains, but the views continues to be breathtaking. After an hour we arrived at Jajce., where we were staying at the edge of town. It really didn't matter because it was a small place, easily walkable within 10mins. We checked out the 20m high waterfall in the centre of town, but didn't fancy the 4BAM to enter the 'viewing platform', which seemed a bit naf given we could see the entire falls from the top already. 

It was a quiet town. And understandably most people would drive all the way to Bihac for the night before setting off for the National Park Una the following day. But we wanted to take it easy and avoid driving in the dark where possible. So we walked up the fortress and saw all the restored buildings with their English explanation installed by the British council. Given it was low season, restaurant options were limited too, the more popular ones weren't open and we settled for pizza at Mega Dea. Just as well, I was happy to give traditions Bosnia food a break.

We picked up breakfast at Tropic supermarket the next morning before driving to Martin Brod, one of the more southern entrances to the National Park Una. An hour into the drive, we had to make a emergency loo stop at Kljuc, which also brought us to the one of the better restaurants on this trip. Google said the restaurant was called Kljuc kod Ramadana; there was no English menu so we went around the dining room and pointed at what other people were having. We ended up with veal in gravy and a soup, which was a nice change from heavy grilled meats and cevapi.

Unlike Plitvice Lakes, the setup of this park wasn't designed for a day trek around the area, because it was simply too big, one would have to drive from too to bottom. We didn't bother with the Northern part and headed straight to Martin Brod to keep our drive to Mostar shorter.

The condition of R406 is largely weather dependent. On the super sunny day we went, there were just large Shaf boulders along the bendy sections of the road, which was okay for us to navigate around. I can't imagine how it would be on a windy rainy or freezing day... As we were nearing the village, google wanted us to take a non-road down a steep hill. Thankfully we ignored it and took the long way round (extra 5mins). 

Since we were the only visitors, the ticket booth was unmanned. And we had the whole site to ourselves. The waterfall broke into a series of rapids and the bright turquoise waters were beautiful.

After a loo break we

began our 4-hr drive down to Mostar. Half the roads were flat in the valley, where we obliged to the speed limit and saw absolutely every type of vehicle overtaking us, from a badass Porsche to a couple of 20-yr old coaches. For good reasons, of course. We read there were plenty of traffic police on the highway, and we did see a few. Usually the incoming traffic would flash to warn us of the police ahead, which was incredibly helpful. Perhaps on a few stretches of flat, ruler-straight roads, we were possibly sticking too true to the limits.

We took a break in Livno, about half way between Martin Brod and Mostar. It was a larger town with plenty of cafes and restaurants, but clearly not a popular tourist destination, just an everyday Bosnian town.

It was closer to 5:30pm when we were entering the edges of Mostar. Clearly a bigger city and heavy with traffic; trucks and lorries were less tolerant of diligent drivers, especially on a Friday. It didn't help that some of the key roads in the city were blocked off for some major works. We were exhausted by the time we parked our car.

The pedestrianised area near the old town area was undergoing re-paving, probably hoping to finish before the summer crowds hit. We rested in our super comfy apartment before heading out for a late dinner. We made the mistake of going near the famous Old Bridge looking for a decent restaurant. 

Needless to say they are so geared towards tourists the quality was pretty damn low. We suspected it was herding theory but Šadrvan was brimming with people. Staff were dressed in traditional Bosnian attire and they take BAM, EUR and Croatian Kuna. In short it was scandalous, food was poor and outrageously overpriced. We were charged 10BAM (5euros) for a plate of grilled vegetables as a 'main' on top of the 2 main dishes we ordered. Apparently the server didn't know there was the veg sides option on their own menu. Scam.