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.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Sarajevo, Bosnia (1)

There are a few buses from Belgrade to Sarajevo, but only one bus at 4pm that leaves from the Belgrade city centre that goes to Sarajevo city centre. The others may leave from Belgrade centre, but they arrive into the western bus station at Sarajevo (Luzani), which is about 30mins from the city centre on the Trolleybus (no. 103). We took the 1pm bus from Belgrade to Sarajevo West, and arrived at 8:30pm.

After a simple dinner, we swung by Zlatna Ribica for a drink. The bar is known for its collection of random bits and pieces scattered about the place. Whoa... smoky too. It was a simple bar with no cocktail options, just hot drinks, wine and spirits. I went for a mulled wine and he had a local beer. 

We started the next day with pancakes from Vatra. Having had some epic, but artery-destructive, ham and cheese burek in Belgrade the day before, we gave the traditional pastry a break. The cafe had a beautiful indoor garden and served very substantial pancakes as well as modern cakes. 

Then we joined Neno for a walking tour at 10:30am. This was possibly the best walking tour I have ever been on. Neno had been through the 44-month long siege of Sarajevo when he was young, so he provided insights to life in the basement and first hand explanation to how they feel about their neighbouring countries. No questions were out of bounds and Neno knew absolutely everything from the history to economy of the country. He took us through the buildings with holes caused by bomb shrapnels, blew my mind with the detail series of events on the assassination of Frankz Ferdinand that triggered the First World War, explained how locals got water from the beer brewery during the war, and how the various rulers influenced the city development. It was most fascinating and informative. We ended the tour in the old town, and Neno gave us tips on local eateries.

We tried some Bosnia stew and soup, which was a nice change from the meat-loaded meals we had been having; there's only so much cevapi one could have... and regardless of how the place serves 'the best cevapi', they get a bit sickly.

We walked around the old town, which got busier as the sun came out. The Bey mosque was closed for prayers until 3:30pm, so we walked up to the yellow fortress (about 20mins) to take in the view.

The mosque wasn't that exciting. 

Having had a few days of Balkan cuisine, we were craving for something different. We booked dinner at Mala Khuhinja, a restaurant with a no-menu concept that serves food with Asian influence. Reviews suggest it's a 'pricier' restaurant for special occasions, sounded great.

It was a slight uphill trek to the modern restaurant. One thing I have taken for granted in the UK is the smoking ban; it was inevitable to be seated next to clouds of cigarette smoke in these countries. Our server spoke excellent English and offered us an aperitif on the house as he explained the no-menu concept. I got a delicious cherry brandy while he had an ultra strong herbal spirit. We also tried some local red wines, which were excellent.

Our first course turned out to be pan-fried salmon served on a bed of vegetables with cumin rice. He doesn't usually eat salmon - oops. While this could be very exotic to the locals, it's quite a basic westernised Asian dish from our perspective. But that's ok, I enjoyed it, especially the heap of vegetables.

Our second course was beef medallion served in peanut butter infused mushroom and peppercorn sauce, served with crispy potatoes and sesame. I thought this was excellent; the meat was soft and juicy, with a nutty and fragrant creamy sauce. It was a great fusion dish.

We were served woodberry cheesecake and hazelnut chocolate mousse cake, on the house, as desserts. Bosnian cakes need a bit more work. Bill came to 68BAM (£35) for two, which is probably pricy by local standards, but we thought it was a bargain! We looked around the restaurant to see if other tables were having the same dishes, there seem to be slight variations with chicken and vegetarian options.

Before picking up our rental car, we went to Sac for a burek breakfast. In Bosnia, only the meat ones are called burek, the others are called pies. We had a potato and a spinach one. The potato pie was a bit meh, but the spinach one was piping hot, moist with the right amount of cheese and not loaded with grease. I think it was the best one we had on the trip, even beats the ham & cheese burek in Belgrade.

Public transport across the country is not very well developed yet in Bosnia, which made travelling to more remote areas very challenging. After scratching our heads over hitting all the sights with limited bus options, we finally decided on driving. Mind you, it's been years since he last drove, so driving on the wrong side of  very mountainous roads with crazy bends and hairpin loops... takes some guts.

Next Stop: Travnik & Jajce

Monday, 10 April 2017

Belgrade, Serbia

 From Timisoara, we took the 7:48am train to Vrsac, which was where we entered the Serbian border. From there we changed to another train to Belgrade. The train journey was peaceful and uneventful due to the emptiness of the train; some Romania officials came on in Moravita to collect our passports for inspection, then the same repeated with Serbian officials in Vrsac, who mumbled Bruce Lee was also from Hong Kong… Once we got our passports back, we moved to a Serbian train to continue our way to Belgrade.

We arrived at the Beograd Dunav station around 11:30am, slightly further out from the city centre. We strolled our way towards the centre and made our first stop at the renowned Bucko Pizza. The tiny pizza bar earned raving reviews from locals, yet I wasn’t sure if I came to Serbia for pizza… but boy I would definitely come back to Belgrade for this.

The thin margarita pizza was smeared with a thick layer of salad, choice of beef or chicken; we went for beef. It was freaking delicious – hot, crispy and indulgently creamy. We also tried the toasted panini sandwich with ham and chicken salad, which was really good, just not half as heavenly as the pizza. Must try.

After checking in and a quick nap, we dropped by a cute little café called Ferdinand. He found it online and was attracted to the sweet and savoury dumplings that looked like Japanese mochi. There was a constant stream of people at the counter, some were ordering boxes of these goodies. At the time, there only had 3 types of dumplings on offer: mushroom, cheese and chocolate & cherry.

The savoury ones were like crispy potato cakes, served with a dollop of cream on the top. We preferred the mushroom one, but the chocolate & cherry was definitely more exciting. It was soft but chewy on the outside, enveloping gooey melted chocolate infused with tangy cherry coulis. The kitchen kept churning out fresh ones to replenish stock, by the time we finished, there were a few more new options back on the shelf.

We joined the free walking tour at 4pm, where our guide Teah explained the importance of the main square and recommended opera and ballet at the National Theatre. It was a shame that on the evenings we were staying at Belgrade, there were only drama shows (in Slavic), otherwise we would have loved to experience the theatre. Then we walked to the Skadarlija, where we dubbed it as Belgrade Covent Garden. Teah shared with us some homemade honey rakija, which was the national drink of Serbia. It was strong… We learnt the commonality of Slavic languages, walked to the oldest mosque and headed towards the fortress. It was getting really cold after walking outside for an hour…

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t glorious, which made the fortress park looked grim and depressing (her words, not mine). The once-white fortress doesn’t look so white anymore, as the city was wiped out a few times in various wars. On a sunny day, the fortress would be a great spot for sunset as it overlooked where River Sava and Danube joined. We finished the tour with a stop at the city main cathedral and outside the National Bank of Serbia. Teah was very informative and open with questions around historical conflicts and controversy around Kosovo. No doubt she has her personal views of the media exaggerating certain situations, and we have ours on the locals downplaying some. It was quite a good tour.

For dinner we made a reservation at Mala Fabrika Ukusa, a little out of the main town close to Temple of Saint Sava.

It was a charming restaurant with the country cottage décor. The menu focuses on fresh market produce and vegetables. We started with a couple of local Serbia red wines, which were surprisingly delicious and round.

Since this was our first proper meal in Serbia, we wanted to try more traditional dishes. This is probably where we had gone wrong; given this restaurant was quite modern, we should have tried their more novel European dishes. The cevapi baked in crumbled feta was slightly salty and the sausages were leaning on the dry side. Compared to the ones we had in the rest of the trip, this wasn’t particularly good. The sarma, which was minced meat mixed with rice, wrapped in cabbage, was good; moist and good balance of flavours but nothing worth writing home about. That said our starters were excellent. The small prune with concentrated sweetness worked well with the small morsel of breaded cheese; the pepper was stuffed with creamy cheese and encased with a crispy shell for satisfying mouthfeel.

The hazelnut parfait wasn’t much like a parfait, but it was a good finish to an enjoyable meal. We walked to Saint Sava Orthodox Church after dinner before calling it a day.

The following day was “Everything-is-closed-except-for-museums-Sunday”. The famous burek bakery was closed, then we headed to Nova Grad, passing a surreal SIM-city style business park area on the tram before arriving at a flea market where locals sell absolutely everything under the sun. I kid you not, anything and everything – from a worn and used single left football boot, to a mammoth block television set that was clearly older than my dad. But the common theme was: junk. In the ‘wet market’ area, we saw this little cutie who look just like Tofu but had natural eyeliner on.

The pancake shack we wanted to try was also closed. Seeing it was a cold gloomy windy day, we were better off heading back to the other side of town and browse museums. There wasn’t much more to see in the city, but we worked out a plan in Choco caffe as we sipped real thick hot chocolate and shared a slightly stale cake: tick off a couple of museums, find something open for lunch, escape room challenge then buy bus tickets for the next day to Sarajevo.

As Teah from the walking tour pointed out, museums and exhibitions in Belgrade are small, most of them take 20mins or less to cover. We started off with Zepter Muzej, which housed a small collection of contemporary artwork. The building itself was arguably more interesting than the exhibition. Then we crossed the road to an exhibition about Serbia in the world wars. It’s interesting the way historical events were portrayed in a fairly ambiguous manner, and I didn’t notice until I caught up with all the facts and timelines in Bosnia. There was a lot of emphasis on its role 'liberating' countries, but things are quite woolly on specific events and what they did...

Lunch was challenging as many of our starred places were closed on Sunday. After much walking from one closed door to another, we landed at 'To je to!', known for their cevapi and traditional burger. We had a couple of sarma, a small cevapi and pjeskiva, with all the recommended condiments, including a spicy aubergine paste and kajmak (local cream cheese). We definitely prefer the burger to the sausage form, and this local eatery did it much better than the fancier restaurant from the night before. It came with chopped onions and shredded cabbage salad, making it a hearty kebab. The kajmak was the highlight for me, it was indulgently rich and dense.

Then it was time for the escape room challenge. The theme was Robin Hood and we had to find a crown. The host was a little surprised to see only 2 of us, but we proved our worth by completing in 50mins! It was a well-designed room with an excellent variety of puzzles and tasks, full of surprises.

Since he drank half a pint of water in the game, we weren't ready for dinner. We wandered up to the bus station and learnt that there was only one bus per day at 4pm that leaves from the Belgrade city centre to Sarajevo city centre. Other buses either leave from the edge of town, or arrive into the centre of town, but they leave at higher frequency.

Seeing we have exhausted the list of things to do in Belgrade, we decided to go with one that depart at 1pm.

Dinner at Zavičej was mediocre. The veal soup was quite good and comforting, despite a thick layer of oil. The rolled schnitzel with stuffed cheese and ham was colossal, but quite dry with no sauce. The smoked pork neck was also massive, but again, dry and quite chewy. We lost interest about half way through the dish. One of the weaker meals we had on the trip.

We made the most of the morning in town. Our first stop was the burek bakery that we missed on Sunday. The constant queue was a vote of confidence, and we shared a spinach & cheese burek with a yoghurt drink. Pretty good, especially compared to the stale one we had at the flea market. But it wasn't until we queued again and the guy in front of us said the cheese & ham was the No.1 item that people are lining up for. Damn this was freaking delicious. Extra flaky and crispy pastry oozing with melted cheese and savoury ham. Yea it was covered in grease and I could feel my arteries blocking, it was worth it.

After a satisfying breakfast, we headed to the National Bank of Serbia, which also house a small museum of the notes and currency through the ages of Yugoslavia and Serbia. There was a 300 trillion note from the days of depression, and a bunch of other interesting things to see. The best part though, was the gentlemen that helped us print our faces on a bank note.

The sun was finally making an appearance after two cloudy days. So we walked back to the fortress to better appreciate the park before heading to the bus stop.

Good thing we had some time to spare, so he could leg it back to the bank to pick up his passport. Would have been tricky to cross the border without it.

To access the bus platform, we had to buy two tokens from the office (180 SRK each), so lucky we didn't spend every penny.

7.5 hours later, we arrived at Sarajevo.