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Rome and Vatican City

We awoke early in Dubrovnik for our last morning before setting off for Rome however we soon came to realise our flight tickets we not printed off. Okay, I swear I’m more organised than this. It’s definitely teaching me to triple check everything for our next trip. So we headed down the stairs to the old town to grab a quick bite to eat and find a print shop. After some hunting around and stopping into a few shops we finally found a printing shop nearby. Luckily for us one of the customers visiting the same time as us actually owned a taxi service. He overheard us talking about finding a way to the airport and not too long after we had organised a lift to the airport. It was a rather crazy morning, running around trying to get our plane tickets and find a way to get to our flight on time but once we were on the plane all seemed well.

We should have really understood that our troubles that morning were going to be a precedent to our time in Rome. We arrived in Rome and were sent to a few different luggage bays before finding the right one. After an hour of waiting we finally had our bags in our hands and were off to our accommodation. We eventually settled into our accommodation and were off on our way to explore the city.

I have to tell you, I didn’t expect a culture shock but I sure as hell got one. I think the previous cities we visited were rather tame in regards to tourism. Dubrovnik, the most tourist city out of the last three, was still a really calm and relaxing place. Walking through the streets of Rome was perfectly okay at first. We walked through Piazza Navona, made our way to the Pantheon and glared at the architecture in amazement before continuing on to the Trevi Fountain. This is what everyone had been warning us about. Street vendors on every corner immediately took away from the magic of the city, the unbelievably packed piazzas didn’t appear to be anything special as they were riddled with tourists – however this was all still clouded by having to keep a weary mind on the strangers looming around us and the offers people were throwing at you (Would we like a photo taken by a stranger? Yes but at what cost?). I had heard of all the horror stories but for some reason I was still unprepared for how much attention you had to pay to your surroundings. Maybe I’ve just been pre-warned too many times. We took a photo at the incomplete reconstruction of the Trevi Fountain which was unfortunately another let down, threw a penny in the little kids pool sitting at the front and walked away happy to be out of the tourist trap. We got a little bit lost leaving but as we turned a corner the noise from the Trevi Fountain was immediately diminished and we found a peaceful little restaurant where we decided to sit and eat and have our first Italian pasta meal. I have to say it was probably the best pasta I have ever eaten and ever will eat, but where’s the surprise?! We are in Italy after all. We ended up walking home in the dark and the best part of the whole night was seeing St Peter’s Basilica lit up with lights along our path home.

The next day we woke up early for breakfast at a nearby café before boarding the bus for our Colosseum tour. I studied Italian in high school, and whilst very few things stuck in my head, the Colosseum was one of the main aspects of Rome that interested me. We were at the front of the bus so riding along the Roman streets was wonderful but turning the corner and coming into view with the overwhelming sight of the Colosseum genuinely brought a tear to my eye. We got off the bus and immediately lined up in the pre-bought ticket line (would recommend doing this) and were let in within 30 minutes which was fantastic compared to the other line where everyone had to line up to buy tickets.

Walking around the ruins was just an experience in itself. We decided to purposely fall for the tourist trap and treat each other with a small present each from the little shop inside. Jamie bought me a necklace, which had a little gladiator’s sword pendant, and I bought him a gladiator’s helmet figurine. We spent our morning walking around the colosseum and taking more photos than necessary, before finding our way to the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum is essentially a park of ruins but you can genuinely sense the different era as you’re walking through. There was a tour group near us and I managed to pick up some interesting facts about the place whilst walking near them (free information, awesome!). There is a marker in the Roman Forum called Milliarium Aureum (the Golden Milestone). This spot apparently marked where all roads coming in and out of Rome met. I believe it also has a listing of all the roads leading up to it and the miles between them.

The sun was beaming down on us so we decided to make our way to our final stop of the day which was the Mouth of Truth. It was nearby but it was still a hefty walk. After reaching our destination the line was just too large for our patience at the time so we peaked through the barred wall to have a look, then continued on our way to the bus stop nearby to make our way home. We weren’t prepared for the public transport system to let us down this day. It was a melting 38 degrees, the bus stop didn’t have shelter or seats and we were overtly dehydrated. During our wait for the bus we didn’t have any Wi-Fi or any way to find bus timetables so we decided to stick it out, knowing the bus does arrive at the bus stop, and after a two hour wait our bus finally turned the corner – it was very much like reuniting with a long lost friend. Note to self: keep public transport timetables handy.

We headed back to our hotel room to refresh and change. We had booked a night tour of the Vatican Museums. I was beyond excited for the museums and this tour guaranteed a small capacity of people so we knew it wouldn’t be overrun with tourists. As we arrived and climbed to the top the sun was just starting to set and we were greeted with an unbelievable view of the nearby St Peter’s Basilica lit up against the sunset. We spent the next few hours roaming around the museums, astounded by the art and history and perfectly happy with the freedom to explore without feeling claustrophobic against other people. The last room of the museums was the incredible Sistine Chapel. This was an entire room filled wall-to-wall with people, but it really didn’t matter as the main sights were on the ceiling. We were informed upon entering that no photos were allowed to be taken (boo!) and that we had to be quiet and respectful of course. We stood in the middle of the place and craned our necks upwards. Now, I like to think I’m a smart woman, but I have my moments… a lot of them. I openly said to Jamie “I wonder where the Creation of Adam is on this” and after looking for it for a good 50 seconds I realised it was sitting straight bang above us, in the middle of the ceiling. Duh! Of course it was. Michelangelo was honestly a master. What a beauty!

We made our way out and down a beautiful spiral staircase that I just needed to take photos of and walked the roman streets back home. We stopped by a gelateria and had a delicious scoop each. We spent the rest of our walk giggling at ourselves attempting to speak Italian in horrible accents.

The following day was reserved for Vatican City itself. We made our way to the beautiful St Peter’s square and lined up in the unbelievably short line to enter the Basilica. Quick tip: Get there at the opening hour, or just a bit before. You’ll save yourself hours by not having to line up behind hundreds of people. We spent our time slowly walking around the Basilica which was absolutely haunting and paid our respects by lighting a candle at the end. We finished up rather early in the day and decided to stop by a café for brunch and apparently a pint of beer (we had both asked for water and got beer somehow. Modern day Jesus turns water into beer instead!). We continued on wandering the streets and came across Gianicolo Hill, at the top we were presented with a beautiful view of the big city. We finished up back at our hotel again before getting ready to go out for dinner and drinks.

That night we went down to Trastevere to explore the little neighbourhood. We stood on the bridge and watched down below where there were street vendors lined up all along the river and crowds of people walking past. Finding a restaurant nearby we treated ourselves to more pasta and a number of delicious cocktails.

 

Our last full day in Rome was upon us and we made plans to start our day at the Spanish Steps. I have to say, even though the steps were inundated with tourists it was a beautiful little resting place, filled with people relaxing with friends, eating gelato. We stumbled upon a fountain called “Fountain of Dea Roma” and I just had to visit my fountain, right?! Of course, Dea directly translates to “Goddess” but we can happily pretend it was a fountain made only for me.

Unfortunately we were stopped in our tracks by another vendor carrying roses. We repeatedly tried to get away, to interrupt him and what not but he was a rather persistent fellow who continued to follow us. Not wanting to be rude we made the mistake of humouring him by talking to him. By the end of our 5 minute conversation we somehow both had a bracelet on our hands and 3 roses each, all for free apparently. But of course how could we leave without donating any money to the church nearby, for which he apparently works for. Luckily we literally had only €5 on us. The guy’s face was instantly furious, he demanded that we donate at least €50 and after literally showing him our empty wallets and throwing the roses back in his face he walked away rather angrily and muttering profanities under his breath. In the end I guess he left us with three roses and the bracelets at least? Completely overcome with anger, and without saying a word to each other, Jamie and I started tearing off the bracelets off our hands and dramatically threw them in the bin. Not wanting to waste the roses I decided to go back to the Fountain of Dea Roma and leave them there. We had decided that being nice to vendors and even some strangers wasn’t going to work for us so from that point on whenever a vendor approached me with anything, whether it was roses, fake chanel bags, selfie sticks, my go to response was “no thanks, I’m allergic” as I walked away. Gave me a few seconds of escape whilst they stood there confused.

We finally found out way to our destination; Villa Borghese. We found the pedal cars we were hoping to ride and hired one for the hour. It was a tough choice between hiring segways and hiring the pedal cars for the park but we found that the pedal cars were a good chance to sit together whilst we explored. We spent the next hour or two crying from laughter at ourselves and our lack of speed. We were, however, overtaking other pedallers and laughing at how much fun we were having in comparison to the segway-squad (as we dubbed them) who looked utterly bored on their automatic transportation. It was such a fantastic way to explore the park, it was a beautiful little place with a lot of things to see.

We headed home in the afternoon to get ready for dinner and our last pizza in Rome. After dinner we wandered around some more and stumbled across some markets near the Castel Sant’Angelo where I bought myself a new hat and some small souvenirs.

The following morning we awoke early to pack our bags as we had a train ride out of Rome to Florence. We got the train station with some time to spare, which was lucky as we got a bit lost trying to read the signs to direct us to the right stations. A lady saw us confused and offered to help us in broken English. We had just started to talk to her when a scene then folded out in front of us, leaving us rather dumbfounded for a few minutes. An elderly man started shouting in Italian at the lady trying to help us. She kept waving him off and trying to talk to us in between his yelling. It got to a point where he was pushing her away from us and it wasn’t until the lady completely snapped and her face changed entirely from friendly to rude did I realise we would’ve been without tickets if the man hadn’t intervened. We quickly realised she was a gipsy and was trying to take our tickets from us – we saw her a bit later on with a few friends scouring around for other clueless tourists. I thanked the man in my best Italian and found a legitimate person to help us. This was just the ending that topped off our feelings towards the city.

We actually had a great time in Rome, however with the culture shock, the street vendors, and the number of people trying to dupe us out of money, unfortunately it left a bad taste in our mouths. I’m so glad we had the opportunity to visit and explore Rome however I don’t believe I’ll be heading back. Not for a while anyway.

But all was well as we ended up safely on our train to Florence, and Florence was just amazing.

 

Dubrovnik

We started off the day with some of the hardest “see you laters” we’ve had to do so far with my grandparents, packed our bags in the rented van and piled ourselves in.

My family (including my auntie, uncle and cousin) decided to make it a day trip to Dubrovnik and be our ride there, which was great because we hadn’t figured out that part of our trip yet! For a self-proclaimed over-organiser, I’m not looking too good here.

So the eight of us piled into a rented van and made our way down to Dubrovnik, which was in total a 3 hour drive, including a stop off at a café to stretch our legs. Stopping at the border though was a heinous task. It was sluggish, boring and frustrating. By the time we lined up to the time we finally crossed the border we were in our car for hours. There were some points that were so slow where we had time to leave the van while “driving” to grab a drink or go to the loo at near by café’s.

Finally driving away from the border, and around a cliff-face, we were greeted with a beautiful scenic view of Dubrovnik and a thick layer of the iconic red roofs. Driving around Dubrovnik was absolute chaos though. One way streets going downwards and then suddenly spiralling around the other way were causing us a bit of panic while trying to find our accommodation. We somehow figured out how to get to our accommodation and the landlord, Milan, met us downstairs to help us with our bags, along the 200 long steps to our accommodation. What an adventure and we hadn’t even stepped foot into the city.

After unloading, we had a short time to appreciate our absolutely beautiful view of the Old Town and the sea. I genuinely have never seen a more breathtaking city before. It’s striking blue waters and warm red roofs would have to be an impressionist’s dream.

We hugged my family goodbye and my dad gave us a sweet little speech about the importance of our travels and making the most of it all as it will be the trip of a lifetime. After staying with family for two weeks, this was going to be a brand new experience for our travels, being out on our own. We made our descent into the Old Town, finding our way to an entrance with some narrow stone stairs that had shops on the walls of on every new step. It was like stepping into a fortress. I mean, we were stepping into a fortress but even with the shops on the corners it still felt like stepping back in time.

Funnily enough one of the first shops we saw (and obviously went into) was a dedicated Game of Thrones fan-shop. If you didn’t know already, Dubrovnik is where Kings Landing is filmed, and we had already pre-booked the Game of Thrones tour for the next day. Naturally, being the geeks we are, we had to step in the shop and take our Queen/King of the Seven Kingdoms photo in the Iron Throne.

We had a dinner reservation at Panorama Restaurant, located on top of Srdj mountain. We made our way to the entrance of the cable car that would take us to the restaurant. We also had the option to hike up to the restaurant but with Jamie just out of knee surgery, and the fact that we had planned our cable car trip to be both day and night time, we didn’t want to be hiking and instead paid for the cable car ride which was really worth the small ticket price. When we booked the restaurant a month prior, I had requested that we possibly be seated at a table that had the scenic, panoramic views of Dubrovnik and the staff were kind enough to honour the request without any questions. The meals were absolutely beautiful and the service was flawless. We stayed up there for a final drink, watching the sun set over the town and the Mediterranean Sea. By nightfall we decided to make our way back down into the Old Town to explore a bit more and it being dark we got a chance to view the city in a different light (or lack thereof) on the way back down the cable car. We went for a little wander around the town which was still full of people. We stumbled across a Salvador Dali exhibition and made our way in, immersing ourselves in art and history. We eventually found our way back to our accommodation, realising there were exactly 325 stairs between the old town and our bed. Hopefully this will work off the copious amounts of delicious food we’d been eating so far.

The next day we had the Game of Thrones tour booked – we decided to do the 7 hour tour around Dubrovnik. In hindsight it wasn’t the brightest idea for a 35 degree day, but we can’t control the weather so off we went! Both of us had come prepared with a jersey of our favourite Game of Thrones house – I told you we are secretly huge geeks.

We met our tour guide at a fountain just outside the city walls who spoke a bit about what we would be doing, what we would be seeing and where we would be going. Our first stop was up a small hill, at Lovrijenac fortress. This wonderful piece of historic architecture is often used as a set for the Red Keep in King’s Landing – many recognisable scenes have been filmed here, and it was geekily awesome to be standing in the middle of it.

Eventually we made our way back down to the fountains outside the Old Town walls, refilling our bottles up before making our way to Ploče gate, the entrance of the Dubrovnik Old City walls. Walking on the walls was a fantastic experience in itself, getting to walk above the iconic red roofed buildings in awe at the panoramic views. We hid under some shade whenever we could find some and eventually stopped for a photo at the Minceta Tower, which was where the iconic Qarth scene was filmed with Daenerys Targaryen running around the circular building. Eventually we made our way down the walls and found the famous “Shame” stairs. According to our tour guide, the GoT crew had to close all the shops along the street down the stairs for a few days to film the scene and paid the shop owners triple their daily profit.

After about 3 and a half hours of walking we were given some time to rest and fill up our stomachs – we went to a nearby food stand and got ourselves some slices of pizza before meeting up with the group again to board the tour bus down to Trsteno Arboretum. The bus ride was about 40 minutes but it definitely wasn’t a boring one. The scenery of the Croatian coast was so beautiful I’d have happily stayed on the bus for another 5 hours, but alas, we eventually arrived at our destination. The gardens of Trsteno were used as the beautiful gardens in Kings Landing and is such a gorgeous place with spectacular fountains, seaside rocks and familiar, scenic pavilions.

We finished up our tour by 5pm which gave us enough time to head home and refresh before dinner. On the way back into the Old Town we came across a small crowd of people and soon realised they were hovering around a woman holding about five tropical birds. Being the crazy bird lady that I am, you could imagine my sheer excitement. I made friends with a few of the birds and got a chance to hold them for a few minutes before we set off once again on a hunt for food. We eventually came across a lovely hole-in-the-wall restaurant and once the owners realised I was from Mostar they even gave us a small discount on our final bill which was a nice surprise. We finished up the night by walking around the town some more and discovering new side streets, walking off our dinner.

We had made it to our last full day in Dubrovnik, and probably the one I was most excited for. Banje Beach, right next to the city walls, is usually packed with locals and tourists and wanting to escape from a bit of the tourism that was starting to develop in Dubrovnik, we decided to make our way over to Lokrum Island by ferry.

Lokrum is a beautiful island just 600km off Dubrovnik. It’s a place seldom visited by tourists yet an island worth exploring. It’s also where some scenes of Qarth were filmed for GoT, so we got to add another one to our list. Lokrum is known for its colourful inhabitants; peacocks. However we came across many beautiful animals including hedgehogs, rabbits, turtles and eventually finding peacocks themselves. We were there on a mission to find a swimming hole we had read about, called Mrtvo More (Dead Sea). It’s a secluded little area that’s a bit hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for. After some wandering we stumbled across a sign pointing us to the right direction and found our way to the swimming hole.

What a picturesque place. It was surrounded by tall rocks and tall trees so it was completely secluded. It had shade and it had sun. it had big rocks to sun bake on and a small amount of land to lay down a towel. We made sure to arrive early in the morning to avoid as many tourists as we could and by the time we arrived there were only six other people there with us. We put down our stuff in the shade, de-robed down to our swimmers and jumped in. The water was glorious in the heat we had been enduring the last 3 weeks.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I was not a good swimmer and I genuinely didn’t know how to float. Now, you may have heard of the dead sea in Jordan, southeast of Asia, where you can lay in it and you naturally float; you can’t drown due to the high levels of salt. This was the same concept and for someone who panics the moment she can’t touch the ground, it was exhilarating. Swimming felt more like floating, as if you were held up comfortably by an invisible source.

We stayed in the water for a long time, hours had passed and it was hitting afternoon so more people were settling in. We packed up our stuff and decided to explore the island some more. There was a high point in the island which we were excited about climbing as it had some of the greatest views of Dubrovnik so we made our way towards it. I can tell you that nothing until that point, and nothing since, has been a harder climb. With Jamie only a few months into rehab from his knee, my concentration on worrying about him, the loose rocks on the path before us and the steep climb up, it felt like a three hour hike. Realistically it was about a 45 minute hike but it was a tough one, concentrating on your every step to make sure you don’t slide back down. I have to say, the view we were greeted with at the top was worth the trek. There was a little fortress at the top, called Fort Royal, that you climbed up and you could see the whole of Dubrovnik and more. It was breathtaking.

Needing to make our way back down, we decided to try another route that could potentially be easier and faster. Boy, were we wrong. I don’t know what route we ended up taking but it definitely wasn’t one that was made to climb down. Instead of 45 minutes, it took us a good portion of 2 hours to make our way safely to the bottom of the island. You thought we had to handle loose rocks before? That was nothing compared to the side cliffs of this hike, trying to find our way through paths that technically didn’t exist, rummaging through trees and bushes until we finally made our way to level ground. It was genuinely a challenge but a hilarious one. That is what we get for pretending to know our surroundings.

After finding more furry friends near the water, we hopped onto the ferry and made our way back to the old town. We wandered around the city walls for a while, looking for a sign that said “cold beers”, knowing full well this sign led us to a beautiful cliff-face cafe, overlooking the sea and Lokrum Island. Somehow, after hours and with the help of Jamie’s great orientation, we stumbled across the sign and the hole in the wall which led us to the cafe. It was nightfall by now but you could still see out to the sea and the view was spectacular. There were still people at the rocks a few metres off diving into the waters. It was a beautiful cafe and an absolutely fantastic way to finish off our visit to Dubrovnik.

The next day we woke up, all packed and ready to head to the airport for Rome. The drama we endured before we even made it to Rome should have been a precursor of what was to come in Rome. But for now we were saying bye to one of the most beautiful cities we had visited and we can’t wait to come back and visit the rest of Croatia one day, including Split, Hvar and Brela.

Mostar

 

Where do I start?

A town I had only recently visited in my dreams. I grew up here, my entire childhood was spent in this little village. I haven’t stepped foot in this place for 12 years.

Driving along the hillsides and coming out of a tunnel to be greeted with a familiar view of a staggered skyline of apartments, a wall of surrounding mountains, streets covered in graffiti, the warmth of the sun reflecting of the stone. I swear the sun is a different sun here. We pulled up to a very familiar house and the first thing I recognised was the fig tree at the top of the stairs, the entrance to my grandfather’s beautiful garden.

As we entered the house, the layout of my grandparents place was immediately recognisable. The overwhelming moment was happily interrupted by hugs and yelling (that’s how us Yugo’s communicate, if you didn’t know).

I’m a big family person and seeing my entire family again was such a joyous moment. I hadn’t seen my grandparents for a few years, since they visited us in Australia, but it was almost different seeing them in Mostar. They were in their home, they were comfortable and happy to have a full house of loved ones. We all know how accommodating baba’s (grandma’s*) love to be whenever they get the chance. Alongside my wonderful grandparents we were also finally reunited with my parents and sister who I hadn’t seen in three weeks – trust me, this is a big deal for an adult who still speaks to her mum every single day. 

With a houseful of people (seriously, there was about 13 of us), a tummy full of food and ears full of yelling, we set off for my other baba’s place – my mum’s mum.

Oh my. Another kick in the nostalgia-gut. You see, my other grandparent’s house that we stopped by first wasn’t as prominent to me as this one, only because I hadn’t lived there since birth. The house I remember them living in was damaged during the war over 20 years ago, alongside many of the homes in Mostar. My baba’s house though, on the other side of the river, was one I distinctly remember since my earliest memory. Hugging my baba upon entry and unloading our bags of our backs, the first thing I did was run up to her sticker-covered TV. Stickers collected by me when I was a kid, from those old-school chewing gum packets. It was all still there, looking like it belonged in a 90’s sitcom.

A day full of emotions was finally settling down and my parents decided that we should visit the Stari Most (Old Bridge). I’ve been looking forward to showing Jamie this place for such a long time. I can’t explain my yearning to be back here, walking amongst the old town, amongst the cobbled streets with stalls, leading up to the Stari Most in the center of it all. Once again, why do I remember these streets more than the houses surrounding it? I could almost remember their patterns. We stopped along the way a few times to take some photos with the Stari Most in the background and wandered the old town slowly until we reached the bridge.

Now here’s something no one aside from a local (maybe) will tell you; there’s a very specific way to cross the bridge. You see, it’s made of slippery stones. The bridge we see today has actually been rebuilt. The original bridge was devastatingly knocked down during the war, in 1993. After the war was over, plans to rebuild the bridge were set in motion. What I find absolutely remarkable is that they found all the remaining rubble of the old bridge in the river, and used the recovered stones from the original bridge to create the foundation of the new Stari Most. It was reopened again in 2004. The type of stone used for the bridge, however, makes it rather slippery to walk over. Tourists are not aware of this at all and it is unbelievably hilarious to stand on the end and watch them struggle to simply walk over – before helping them, of course.

Now, the bridge is actually made with these horizontal grooves which are conveniently spaced a whole step apart. Coincidence? Of course not! As you walk over, you’re meant to step with half of your foot on the grooves and use it as a sturdy base. I would not recommend wearing sandals or shoes with no grip. You’ll be kneeled over crying from laughter at the simple task of trying to cross a bridge.

After we crossed the bridge and took some photos by the Neretva river, we stopped by one of the many street stalls to get a $1 ice cream (two scoops, and all). I should mention that it was a hot summers night and ice cream was always the best choice for all your meals.

The next day we did a little bit of shopping before heading back to my grandparents house for lunch. On the way we stopped by the nearest bakery to satisfy my 12 year craving of salted pretzels. Sounds like nothing special, right? Wrong! My god, this savoury pastry is food from the carbohydrate heavens. If you’re ever in Mostar, find a bakery and demand salted pretzels! We spent the night on the balcony eating ćevapi, homemade cherry pita (baba’s is the best, no arguments) and salted pretzels. It’s a wonder I didn’t leave the town 50kg heavier.

My grandparent’s apartment had been renovated since the war, but the top half of the building displays a very different story. When you sit on the balcony, tilting your head up to view the top ⅓ of the building, it’s riddled with holes from gun fire. Having lived here, the view of the bullet-ridden walls didn’t seem too unusual to me, but it immediately became apparent in it’s disturbingness when Jamie pointed it out and was genuinely stumped for words.

We decided to spend the following day travelling down to Blagaj. It’s a peaceful little village-town, with restaurants and cafes lined up by the river, with breathtaking views of the enclosing cliffs and river springs. Blagaj isn’t a big place at all but I will always tell people to go visit it if they’re nearby. We visited the Dervish Monastery, a beautiful white building, on the edge of the town, near the cliff-face. It’s a very unique experience going through the ouse. We went down to the balcony which hangs over the river, right near the cave. After pretending to be tourists, and as it was a hot day, we decided to sit down at one of the cafes which had the river flowing on either side of the seats.

After exploring Blagaj we headed home to get changed and walk around the city again. Most of our days were spent eating pizza, ice cream and drinking cheap wonderful beer. Tonight was no exception.

The next day, Jamie’s sunburn caught up to him. Remember the second degree burns I mentioned, from Kamengrad? This was the day that they really hit him hard. He was feeling exhausted and the weather wasn’t easing up on us. So naturally my family decided to visit the one and only pool in the town. Poor Jamie was left at home to heal as the 40 degree sun wasn’t going to be doing him any favours. My family and I however spent the majority of the day by the pool, swimming, showing off their diving skills and pushing each other in the pool (there’s a good little video snippet of this in our Europe video).

I think my skin was conditioned for the European sun, it tans within minutes in Europe. In Australia it just bounces the sun off, really. By the afternoon we were feeling refreshed and went for a bit of a walk around again. I think this is my favourite way to travel – to just slowly walk around and see all there is to see. We went into a few stalls and I bought myself this beautiful handbag which I initially fell in love with, but when mum said she used to have a very similar one I just had to buy it.

Feeling hungry, we found this beautiful restaurant nearby the bridge, almost hidden with staircases and little alleys. As you enter you’re greeted with a fantastic view of the Stari Most, right next to you. I think I spent more time glaring at the town and bridge than drinking and socialising.

Recently, a surprising number of friends have visited this town for a day trip. I can’t explain how weird it is to me that others visit this place. When we moved over here people had barely heard of Bosnia or (Ex)Yugoslavia and now people are travelling to see a tiny town from this country. However if you are thinking of going, can I ask you to please stay for a full day or two? I know it’s a small place with little to do, but the night turns this place into a new town and you need to experience both day and night. It’s almost magical to be around at night. The streets are packed with people, the cafes are bursting with friends, sitting down for a coffee or drink, talking about their days. It’s a wonderful place and it is truly underrated. But I digress.

At this point we have spent a large amount of time exploring the town and surrounding areas so the next day we decided to visit a place out of town to buy my grandma an air conditioner, of all things. Nothing fun, just a productive day because we have been spending about 2 hours a night sleeping and about 6 hours of it agitated from the heat and humidity. On the way home, however, it was way too hot and dad decided it was a great time to stop for a drink at a cafe… at Kravice Falls.

I wish I knew we were going to do this so I could’ve brought my camera with me to take some better photos because it was genuinely the most serene, beautifully unexpected place. The water was a bright teal colour and in the distance sprays of water from the falls created a dreamy, foggy scenery. Groups of people were swimming in the water, diving from the cliffs and I swear somewhere in the distance there could have been birds singing.

We sat down for a drink but still unable to cool down Jamie and I decided that clothes weren’t going to stop us from taking a dive in the wonderful blue water. Now, you should know I am a terrible swimmer. I can probably swim at a beginners level, but if I have to float: good luck to me! I can’t stop swimming and just float because I will most probably panic and go under. This is probably what hinders my ability to actually swim properly. I wasn’t going to let that stop me of course. We swam up to the falls and watched people bravely dive off cliffs. It was, without a doubt, the most serene experience of my life, being amongst the falls.

That afternoon, after returning home, we went and visited family and walked them around the town, and ended up another restaurant with magnificent views. I really can’t get enough of this place, it’s breathtaking. We did end up finding a statue of the donkey I took photos of 12 years beforehand with my grandfather, who’s passed away, so in his memory I re-created the photos we took.

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The following day we had plans to cool down properly. My family had been wanting to visit this public pool just outside Mostar, and after five days of 40+ degrees it was a good time to go. When I say the pool was in the middle of nowhere, I mean there was nothing else surrounding it. Do you know one of those first scenes in Breaking Bad, where they are in the van in the middle of a desert with miles of sand and rock around them and nothing else? It was like that, except instead of a meth lab/van, it was a fantastic public pool. I lost track of time by the end of it, we spent hours and hours swimming. It was absolutely marvellous, though the weather did catch up to us. It must’ve known we were enjoying ourselves too much and a storm started looming in, kicking us out of the pool.

The next day it was heavily raining and Jamie was so excited to get a bit of relief from the weather (I daresay his English skin was not built for anything above 20 degrees). I tried to pre-warn him that the rain was going to actually make it worse but he didn’t believe me. Mostar sits in a valley so all the heat from the last 5 days was lifted up by the rain and rested in all the apartments, so the humidity just got worse and worse and it felt hotter and hotter. Sorry Jamie, I did warn you!

We spent the last few days in Mostar with family. We had a beautiful dinner with my family and grandparents near the river, we visited my wonderful grandfathers grave and left him some flowers, we spent another night walking the bridge again. Our curiosity did take us into the one of the towers of the Stari Most (together dubbed the “Bridge Keepers”). We walked into the Halebija tower which once held a prison and was also a look out for the bridge keepers. It now houses an honest, historical gallery of Mostar.

The day before we were set to leave Mostar, the 449th annual diving competition was scheduled. We’d planned the start our trip to fall in place with this event so we were all excited to see the divers in action.

The diving competition has been an annual tradition for nearly 500 years in the town of Mostar, where young men would dive off the Stari Most into the freezing Neretva River below. It is considered a rite of passage for young men and isn’t for the faint of heart. Firstly, the Neretva River down below is considered to be the coldest river in the world. Due to this, divers need to fill bottles with the water from the river and pour it over themselves before they dive, to control their body temperature and heart rate, as opposed to causing a temperature shock to their bodies upon entering the water. On top of the freezing cold river waiting for them below, the dive is a lengthy one. The bridge is 24 metres high. It is a sight to see in itself but I would highly recommend watching a diver if you’re around. Even if you’re not there for the diving competition, regular divers usually hang around the bridge and if you’re happy to pay them a pretty penny they’ll happily dive in for you. I genuinely wouldn’t recommend doing it yourself as you have to be an exceptionally great and controlled diver to attempt it. If the wind is too strong, due to the height of the bridge and the narrowness of the river, the wind can blow you into the rocks below. As you can see, diving off the bridge is a rather serious and intense activity here. So naturally, there’s a competition for it.

On the day of the competition we lined up on the rocks near the river alongside hundreds of other tourists. It was strange to see so many people in this tiny, unknown town. Watching diver after diver come up to the bridge and step over the rails as they psychologically prepare for the dive. It was probably one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life so far and I was solid on the ground. I could feel their nerves and sometimes their fear from hundreds of metres away. Watching them through my camera I could see their facial expressions too as they took three, five, ten deep breaths. The most endearing part of it all were the divers that decided they couldn’t jump. They would put their arm up and climb back over the rails. Many looked disappointed in themselves but the crowd always cheered for them, just as hard as they did for the divers that took the leap. To have the nerve to even climb over that rail, let alone dive 24 metres into a freezing cold river, takes an enormous amount of courage.

After a few hours of stressing out whilst watching each diver, alongside some well deserved “ooh”s and “aah”s, it was time for a break and we headed to a nearby café for some more beer (seriously, $1 beer was a highlight). By night time we headed back to our original spot, the closing ceremony was starting. Divers lined up along the bridge with torches of fire to create a beautiful light show, loud music blared as a few divers took two torches in their hands and dived off the bridge. In the darkness all you could see was the fire falling with the divers and then the light of the fire travelling down the river.

It was truly a great ending to a week-long stay in one of my most beloved towns. We went home to rest before another set of goodbye’s and a long journey ahead to Dubrovnik the next day.

 

Drvengrad and Kamengrad

 

Mornings and goodbye’s are not the best of friends.

On Saturday we awake to say goodbye to everyone in Belgrade and we were on our way to Mostar. It was a solid 10 hour drive so we decided to have a few pitstops; Drvengrad (Woodentown) and Kamengrad (Stonetown).

They are autological names. Their names are exactly what they are; a town made entirely of wood and a town made entirely of stone.

A little bit of background for anyone interested. Drvengrad was built by Emir Kusturica for his movie, Life is a Miracle. He wished to create his own town after his hometown (Sarajevo) was destroyed in the war. Kusturica then pursued to build another little town called Kamengrad (or better known as Andrićgrad) in recognition to a Yugo author, Ivo Andrić.

If you find yourself travelling in between Belgrade and Sarajevo, I strongly recommend that you stop by these two towns. They are such unique villages and standing in the middle of them you feel like you’re in an alternative universe.

Arriving in Drvengrad, the first view that greets you is the breathtaking landscape of the Serbian mountains with only a few scattered houses amongst the overwhelming green landscape. The streets coming in and out of the village were ridden with marvellous, colourful cars which really added to the feeling of being in an alternative universe.

If you think the name is lying, it is genuinely a town created out of wood. Even the pathways are made out of recycled wood; wine barrels I believe, but please correct me if I’m wrong. The entrance greets you with a view of the few houses in the village, including restaurants, a library and a gallery, and in the centre is the Wooden Church of Saint Sava. 

After exploring the buildings a bit and sitting down for a coffee in the restaurant we walked around to the Mokra Gora train station and got a chance to peek into some old school trains with wooden seats and which appeared to be straight out of a 90’s animation. Alternative universe, I’m telling you.

Back into the car and onto our next destination: Kamengrad.

We parked nearby the Drina river which had these lovely little houses surrounding it.

Walking into Kamengrad you were blinded. The entrance and the pathways were white. Blaringly white. So white in fact that Jamie got second degree sunburns from our short stopover. That’s right, the sun reflecting from the white stone gave Jamie second degree burns. The town wasn’t on the same level of surreal as Drvengrad but it sure was close. Inside Kamengrad were a few monuments dedicated to Ivo Andrić, Petrović Njegoš and Nikola Tesla.

We stretched our legs, explored a bit and squashed back into the car for another four hours of spectacular scenery and green landscapes – you seriously can not get bored driving around Bosnia and Serbia, I swear – before arriving in my beautiful hometown, Mostar.

Belgrade, Serbia

 

Adelaide. Singapore. Frankfurt. Belgrade. Four airports and 33 hours in transit.

I have to tell you, sitting in the same position for 24 hours does dreadful things to your back. Having said that, it may have also been the 8 hour stop over in Singapore where Jamie and I decided to explore the airport with backpacks filled with bricks… Okay not bricks, but it may as well have been.

You see, we found out only as we arrived that Changi Airport doesn’t have lockers for security reasons. This is completely reasonable, but not knowing this from the start, I had packed a DSLR, 3 lenses and a MacBook Pro in my backpack, along with the rest of my carry on. So here I am, trudging along Changi Airport with this 10kg backpack lunged over me for the better part of 8 hours. This was all followed by another 14 hour flight. By the time we arrived in Frankfurt my back was in so much pain I think there may have been a few tears while devouring a Big Mac – although that also could have been sheer happiness of eating anything other than plane food.

Who really likes long journey flights anyhow? And if you do, you should really considering hosting inspirational talks for the rest of us.

It took stepping outside Belgrade Airport for it to finally hit me that we had landed in a whole other country; on the other side of the world. After what was a much less complicated process through customs than what we expected, we were picked up by my dad’s cousin, Mito, from the airport.

And so began the two-week-long journey of not embarrassing myself with my broken Bosnian/Serbian. I think it went well for the majority, Jamie even picked up a few words here and there and by the end of the trip he had promised the kids that he’ll learn the language before we return again one day. Everyone was fantastic about including Jamie in the conversations as much as they could. I was not only impressed but unbelievably appreciative. Jamie being Jamie, of course, he’s comfortable in every situation you throw at him so he handled himself without forming a bead of sweat during our entire time in Belgrade and with family.

To combat our inevitable jet lag my family took us out for a walk around Belgrade the first night. The most prominent landmark was without a doubt the Church of Saint Sava. It was rather beautiful in its structure and was blindingly white, even by 10pm at night.

We had plans the following day to meet with family I hadn’t seen in over twelve years. It’s crazy what sticks in your mind. The visual memory that pulling up to my grandmother’s sister’s house sparked was rather overwhelming. We had lunch with the family and I had a chance to reconnect with my cousin. Afterwards we ended up at her place and had ice-cream and coffee with her lovely mum, and then headed out to an awesome little bar called Samo Pivo (only beer) – and guess what? They only served beer. What an awesome concept. Beers from all around the world served in their own unique glasses. After that we went out to another bar to watch my cousins partner play in a band. The atmosphere of the band, the bar and the crowd was beyond fantastic. It was nothing like the atmosphere of similar set ups in Adelaide. It was a place filled with culture, and  complicated history, and it was blindingly obvious to the two outsiders, sitting with a beer in hand and observing everything around them. I think that was the point where it finally started sinking in that I was back in a city that only existed in my memories for the last half of my life. By the end of the night my jetlag caught up to me and I was falling asleep in my beer. It was time to call it a night.

The third day started off with us visiting a local shop and buying some food for the house. We walked the cobbled streets down past my old kindergarten, where I got to point out to Jamie that this was the place I learned to tie my shoe laces. So irrelevant but incredibly surreal. The most surprising thing for me was how much I remembered the streets. They triggered more memories for me than anything else. The patterns of the stones were so peculiarly familiar to me. The rest of the day was spent reconnecting with more family members on the other side of the city. It was wonderful to get to know family on a different level, as an adult as opposed to a child. It was already strange for me seeing all these familiar faces, so I can’t imagine what it was like for them to know a shy and quiet 12 year old only to have a somewhat louder adult return twelve years later.

Jamie and I went out that night for a walk and ice cream on the other side of the Sava River. We ended up stumbling upon a line of boats that were actually bars and stopped in one to have a beer for about $2. I have to say, so far the most welcome aspect of Eastern Europe was the cheap but fantastic food and beer.

At this point in time we had no clue when we were set to leave for Mostar, or even how we were going to get there. Being the organised person that I am, you can imagine the anxious battle I had going on inside of me. We found out the next morning we were leaving on the Saturday and that Mito was driving us there, which was a beautiful gesture in it’s own right, let alone that it was a 10 hour drive. After having a bit of a talk that morning we decided we’re also going to stop by two little towns on the way: Drvengrad (Woodentown) and Kamengrad (Stonetown).

The day before we left we decided to explore Belgrade a bit and actually have a chance to do genuine travelling. We spent the morning walking around Kalemegdan and visited the Belgrade Fortress built in the year 535. It was a rather surreal place. The outskirts of Kalemegdan park had absolutely wonderful views of Belgrade. We stood there for a while, a little breathless from both the view and the walking. At the top of the park stood a tall statue named Pobednik. We caught a glimpse of it on the first day when we were driving into the city from the airport. He’s a rather beautiful thing and overlooks the majority of the city.

After our walk we found ourselves in the centre of the city, in Knez Mihailova. A busy street surrounded by shops, culture, restaurants and people. We did a bit (a lot*) of shopping, sat down at a few cafes for drinks and eventually met up with more family to go out for a nice dinner.

That night at dinner my jet lag, combined with possible sunstroke from being out in the sun for 9 hours, hit me really hard. I was dizzy, spacey and couldn’t concentrate on my surroundings at all. The night ended with my inability to hold a conversation for longer than 3 seconds, and so we were driven home for me to get some rest before our big drive the next day.

I can’t tell you the embarrassment and guilt that has followed me since that dinner. Lesson learned, folks. Don’t push your body, not even on holiday. Sometimes you need a break even from travelling.

Miraculously feeling better the next day we said our sad goodbyes to the family and set off for Kamengrad and Drvengrad.