Balkan Doživljaj, final chapter: All roads lead to…Istanbul?

I’ve just spent 2-1/2 weeks travelling, bouncing between historic stone towns wrapped in ancient fortresses and a mesmerising display of what happens when nature gets to push its boundaries. I spent time in Croatia and Montenegro, and then a couple of drive-throughs of the Bosnia end of Bosnia and Herzegovina (passport stamped 2x, but it feels a little like cheating to “count” a country without really seeing it). Croatia, and to some extent Montenegro, draws cruise ships to its ports, but thankfully many of the wonders of both are too far inland or too small to be considered “worthwhile” destinations.

Worthwhile is in the eye of the beholder: I’ll always gravitate towards that which is lesser-known, farther-flung, not-as-trodden, ditto obscure; grateful for the opportunities that health and employment and relative freedom afford.


Before going home, I further bounced to a stopover in one of my favourite cities, Istanbul, where I set my sights on seeing things I hadn’t in my previous visits here. In all its own ways, this city mesmerises. On so many levels, it’s where East meets West and where secular meets orthodox. The Adhan, call to prayer, echoes in the streets at its regular cadence, the chants melding with the city’s din. In the market crowds, suited or Levi’s- and T-shirt-garbed urbanites jumble with burqa and niqab and headscarf-clad women to create a kaleidoscopic patchwork of cotton and silk and wool and skin.

It is an architecturally fabulous city, elaborate and historic mosques and the 5th-century Walls of Constantinople that surround the oldest parts of the city, juxtaposed against the gleaming downtown bridges and myriad shops…there’s a sweet shop on nearly every corner selling a regional favourite – Turkish Delight.

I spend my first afternoon reacquainting myself to this old town neighbourhood – Sultanahmet – known primarily for the Blue Mosque and its neighbour, the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sofia), an Orthodox cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-cultural museum. It’s the latter I’m intent on seeing this day. The mid-day tourist crush has diminished and I breeze in without much wait. It is immense, and an engineering wonder on its own…(the interior height of the dome is an astounding 55.6 metres high). (Re-)built as a cathedral in 537AD, it was considered a pinnacle in Byzantine architecture. Once the Ottoman Empire did its thing in the 1400’s, Ayasofya was converted into a mosque (in the process, the spectacular mosaics were plastered over). Today, the structure serves as a museum, and as such, we see a restoration of the old Orthodox tilework with Christian works contrasted against the elaborate mosque décor, including 8 massive calligraphic discs depicting the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, and other related messengers and bigwigs (thus concludes my knowledge of the Islamic hierarchy). At present, the Turkish government is arming for a fight with the UNESCO folks, as Erdoğan is angling to turn the museum back into an active mosque.

Next morning, I hop a bus to get on a boat that takes me on a water tour from the Golden Horn (Istanbul’s old trading port and current and bustling waterfront) and into the Bosporus Strait, the waterway that serves to connect the Black Sea with the Aegean, and one of primary reasons Constantinople was a key trading post along the Silk Road. There are reminders of Istanbul’s place in history scattered throughout the city, like the Obelisk of Theodosius or a little stela, almost hidden between a tram stop and the crowded entrance to the Basilica Cistern, called the Milion Stone, marking the “zero point” to everywhere else that was important in the Byzantine era, with distances. Constantinople was the center of the modern world and this stone told you how far away the place you wanted to go was from the only place that mattered. It’s these little wonders that just add to the magic of this city.

Istanbul is the largest city that sits on the cusp of two continents, the Bosporus separating the European from the Asian side of the country. And from the water you can definitely see many of the historical influences in the variety of architectural styles. Grand mosques, old and new; modern industrial eyesores, marble palaces, red roofed stone houses built into the hillsides, pretty painted neighbourhoods that look like something from a travel magazine… And, to my delight, a castle! As we make our way down the Bosporus towards a stop on the Asian side, I see a massive fortress on the European side. The Rumeli Fortress, I learn, is one of several fortresses here. It’s not really surprising, knowing something of the history of the region, and these are now (all!) at the top on my list of what to see next time I return.

The Golden Horn is a natural harbour, and as we come into port, it warms my heart to see some of its resident dolphin population. This harbour was once bubbling with fish and these dolphins’ ancestors, but here, too, they’re sadly feeling the impact of overfishing and pollution.

We’re at port and I bid farewell to the hungover Finns I met onboard. My next stop is what’s becoming an annual pilgrimage to the Mısır Çarşısı, the old spice market, where I acquire enough Turkish Delight, cheese, olives and biber salçasi (a thick red pepper paste) to eat like a Turk for a while back home!

My remaining hours here fly by – I walk back towards my hotel along the water, watching the fishermen cast their lines in the channel where the Golden Horn meets the Bosporus. On the way, I wander through the lovely Gülhane Parkı and make it back to my neighbourhood. It’s all becoming more familiar to me; even the human traffic jam I encountered at the spice market seemed amusing, and I had a laugh at the situation with strangers in the crowd.

Dinner is at a cosy little place lit by hundreds of Turkish mosaic lamps, then I meander back to my B&B a bit slower than necessary. Early the next morning, I do a last wander around Sultanahmet before the crowds arrive. I patted some stray dogs, got adopted by a cat, had a fresh-pressed pomegranate juice and then brekkie in the lovely B&B courtyard before starting the journey back to the real world.

In a blink of an eye, I’m on a bus, reflecting on the string of encounters I’ve had in this strangely enchanting city. The bus is taking me back to the airport, and to the air ferry that will magic me over the continent of Europe and then over the sea that separates this continent from mine. Sitting next to me is a smiling woman from Kabul, here in Istanbul for a few days of shopping. Back home, she teaches Arabic. In broken English, hand gestures and Google translate, we shared a little bit about ourselves. Then she WhatsApp calls her teenage son in Kabul so he could meet me. The world is so much smaller than we are led to believe (and parents around the world will forever be embarrassing their teenagers, I think). People are people, regardless of their wrapping.


When I travel, I try to come home knowing more than I did and seeing something new or from a different perspective. Sometimes it makes me question the rat race, makes me more worried about the rabid consumerism that spreads like a virus, makes me want to work harder to find that balance between work and play, where play should win out but doesn’t always…

Until next time, Istanbul. I’m readying for the next adventure…


Read the whole Balkan Doživljaj story here: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains of Montenegro | Part III: Fleeing the Russians for the Countryside | Part IV: Nature, Fog, and Maybe Going to Hell | Part V: In Which I Split

Balkan Doživljaj Part V: In which I battle a crowd for lunch and (travel to) Split

I had sworn to not go back to Old Town, especially now knowing that there are literally two boatloads more people in town than there were a week ago. But… There’s a food festival in Old Town, says my host. And I’ll drive you there on my scooter. My boat doesn’t leave until 4. I’ve already booked my ferry ticket. I can’t refuse.

We zip our way through traffic from Port Gruž to Old Town (this is the way to get around here, I think, as I become a little wistful about my own former scooter) and he locals me through the crowded Pile Gate, bypassing all the tourists as if we’ve got the golden ticket. We do, sort of, because living in a place like this earns you a right to skip past massive tour groups. We wander around the Old Town for a little while as he tells me about the war, his thoughts on immigrants (we disagree), his thoughts on the US’s president (we agree, mostly), and general tidbits about Dubrovnik. Then he explains the lay of the land for the food thing: there are tables set up on which the local restaurants and hotels lay out a spread of food. It’s a charity event, so you buy tickets – each ticket entitles you to some food at each restaurant’s table. So if you want to taste a few things, you buy a few tickets. We’re here early under the guise of my host wanting to go to church at 11, but really the game is to scope out the tables as they’re laid out and see which food you want to taste. They hold the back public until noon, but if you line yourself up at your intended mark, you’ll be right in front of the stuff you want to eat when they open the gates.

At a few minutes before noon, the emcee announces it’s time to start, which turns out to be a happy chaos. It also turns out that they don’t really care about the tickets all that much, so I’ve bought 2, plus one for wine, and I’m able to taste a smattering of fabulous seafood dishes plus some decadent desserts. My host is a big guy who has done this before so he’s at the front of the crowd in no time, helping me squeeze my way in to get to the good stuff. It was a funny scene, great food, and I’m glad he talked me into going. With the crowd at hand, the event was over within an hour, and I was back on a bus to Port Gruž in no time, with plenty of time to wander the throngless Port area, pack up, and get ready for the next leg of my journey.


Fast forward 5 hours and I’m some 230 kilometres north. It’s almost 10pm, and I’m wandering around dark streets in a completely new place. Google Maps is telling me the guesthouse should be Right. Here. And it isn’t. And I’m exhausted and I’ve got a head cold and I want a hot shower and a comfortable bed. So without the help of the kind waiter at a local restaurant, I might still be looking for that teeny tiny alley, behind another little restaurant, exactly where Google said it should be. By this point I had begun inventing Croatian expletives (hint: there are not many vowels in use).

The good news was that my Dubrovnik host had made arrangements with my Split host, and she was expecting me. So I was greeted with a smiling face; I had a hot cup of tea, a safe place to crash, and all I needed to do was figure out what to do here for the next few days.

There’s some history in this city. The Roman Emperor, Diocletian, built his retirement palace here in the 3rd Century. It evolved from a palace and fortress to a retreat for Roman royalty into the city itself – to this day Diocletian’s Palace remains the center of this bubbling place, stone archways, labyrinthine streets, narrow alleyways and all!

But I’d had enough of the cruise ship and tourist crowds, so after a day of seeing what Split’s old town was like (Diocletian blah blah, 1000-year-old palace walls, gelato, Egyptian relics, cats, narrow alleys and – WOW – where did that giant statue come from, and why are people rubbing its toe?), I decided to split Split and get me into some nature.

First up was Krka National Park. I get on a tour bus in near dread mode, then lighten at the prospect that I’m not required to stay with the group for more than an hour or so at the beginning, and then I’ve got most of the day to wander the park.

This is labelled as the mini-Plitvice, so the expectation is lakes, waterfalls, lush forest. What the guide, nor the guidebook, adequately describe is this geared-for-tourists place where you walk on a wooden plank path, counterclockwise around the park (follow the arrows; those who go against the grain will be flogged), landing at the prescribed shops and/or viewing stations along the way. There is no wooded trail, per se, and it is virtually impossible to get lost. It’s end of season here as well, which works in my favor: the crowds are smaller, swimming is not permitted (bonus opp for the picture-taking), and there are no lines for the ferry which ferries us from the small town of Skradin, across the lake, to Krka National Park proper.

The lakes here are a mesmerising emerald green and give the impression that some mythical creatures reside in their depths. In fact, there is one such being in Croatian folklore called Vodanoj, a water spirit who lurks by old mills (one still is in operation here), awaiting unsuspecting humans to trap and keep as slaves in their underwater castles…maybe it is he (or she) that helps these lakes give off their mystical hues.

I’ve wandered from the pack at this point, walking the prescribed path to admire the small falls and ponds along the way, and then to stop and gape at the exquisite Skradinski Buk, Krka’s crowning gem. After this, the rest of the park is disappointing, and since I’ve got something like 3 more hours here, I decide to walk the 4kms back to town rather than take the ferry.

Back in town, Skradin turns out to be something of a hideaway for boating types and rich recluses (one of Skradin’s claims to fame is that Bill Gates called it his favourite place in Croatia). There’s a marina, and if you follow the river far enough, you will eventually end up in the Adriatic. For a panorama of my surrounds, I climb to the top of the Turina fortress, built in the 13th century by the Šubićs (one of Croatia’s twelve noble tribes). From this perch, I enjoy the view over the sweet little town. After a while in the hot October sun, I descend in search of gelato. Finding the shop closed, I decide to rest on the sea wall by a park, where a few of the local swans stalk tourists in search of snacks. Unbeknownst to me, the she-swan is jealous and threatens to take me out should I flirt with her mate any further. At least I come away with all digits intact, and a bonus silly photo opp or two.

The next day’s adventure is the farther-flung national park called Plitvice (pronounce it if you dare) Lakes. This is another UNESCO World Heritage site*, and a proverbial Instagrammer’s dream for its teal pools and magnificent waterfalls (Veliki slap is nearly 80 metres high). Again, this park has been plotted (and gridded and girded) for the tourist trade. There is NO hiking here, and one may only travel via the planked paths around the park. Luckily, our group is small-ish and the tour guide bearable, so the few hours of the sheep-like following of the paths is tolerable. I resent the bus/train up from the parking area to the start of our journey (why can’t we walk?); the boat ride down also seems frivolous, but the intent here is to move as many people around the park as efficiently as possible, not to actually experience the nature that surrounds, but to view it and move on. Stopping to gaze for more time than it takes to snap a selfie is mostly frowned-upon, as the group needs to progress on schedule. By the end of the day, I’m feeling a tad like I’ve been a piece of luggage on a baggage carousel, wary of getting bumped by other baggage angling for the perfect angle. Also glad it wasn’t higher season, as I can’t imagine what that experience would be. I get back on the bus more under than whelmed to the overall Plitvice experience. The highlight was probably the restaurant we visited en route home, where we shared road stories over local cheeses and salad and beer (and tea for me – still fighting the bug).

These tour experiences further convince me that group travel is not my thing, though I’d met a couple of other solo travellers this day – a Canadian and an Irish woman, with whom (in search of a currency exchange and some gelato) I’d get lost in the alleys of Split’s old city that evening.

This is the beauty of itinerary-fluid solo adventures: the laughs one has with people you may or may not ever see again; the solidarity and trust forged in fleeting road connections. We laugh as we rub the toe of St. Petar (he was the first to go against the Vatican and deliver mass in Croatian rather than Latin. Heathen!) Lore has it that you rub his big toe and your wish will come true. I rubbed and wished…Jury’s still out on saintly magic.

I’ve got a morning to wander the promenade and the old town, then a bus (and a promise of another stop – and passport stamp – in Bosnia), then back to my guesthouse in Dubrovnik and an early morning flight to Istanbul for a few days to round out the Balkan Doživljaj.

That last evening, I run through the past two weeks in my tired head. I indulge in some brown bread from the little local bakery with some cheese and figs (and Ajvar OMG!) I’ve saved from the fresh market in Split… and I’m going to sleep this last Balkan night sated. I’ve hiked mountains and seen some unbelievable vistas; spent a week making memories with one of my favourite humans, and learnt how to pronounce some words I may never use again (and botched many more!). I’ve nearly filled my passport, adding 3 countries on this trip; and I’ve rekindled a love of seeing the world. I’ll go home with a camera full of photos, a head full of words, and another dose of Fernweh, that farsickness that draws me away when the real world gets to be just too real.

Next stop, Istanbul.


*UNESCO World Heritage Site tally for this trip, 6:

Croatia: Old City of Dubrovnik, Historical Complex of Split with the Palace of Diocletian, Plitvice Lakes National Park

Montenegro: Bay of Kotor (Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor), Fortification of Kotor (Venetian Works of defence between 15th and 17th centuries), Durmitor National Park, Biogradska Gora (on the tentative list)


Read more about our road trip: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains | Part III: Fleeing the Russians | Part IV: Fog and the Road to Hell (sort of)

Balkan Doživljaj Part IV: fog, breathtaking nature, and the road to hell. Sort-of.

Read more about our road trip: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains | Part III: Fleeing the Russians


As we’d come to discover in this part of the world, the fog nestles in the canyons, blanketing the landscape in a dreamy cotton morning, sun warming the day and revealing the treasures that lay beneath. And it’s no exception when we arrive at the bridge spanning the Tara Canyon.

The story goes that the Đurđevića Tara Bridge was put into service just before the Italian army invaded at the beginning of WWII. Built between 1937-1940, it was quite the engineering achievement, earning the title of largest concrete arch vehicular bridge in Europe. Rather than help the enemy reach deeper into Montenegro, one of the project’s engineers sacrificed the bridge by blowing up its main arch and hindering the advance. When this man was ultimately captured, he was executed on the very same bridge he helped erect.

Sad history (and ziplines) aside, the bridge is gorgeous. As the fog swirls to reveal the canyon below, we are even more excited for the rafting trip we’ve just booked. So the (birth)day’s adventures are set: rafting in the morning, hiking Durmitor National Park (Part I) in the afternoon.

It’s rather off-season for the rapids as well, but we enjoy a spectacular view of the Tara Canyon from the river, C takes a dip in the frigid waters (I’m further convinced that Swedes do not feel cold), and we arrive back at our starting point with smiles on our faces and hopes to see the river again at its peak.

It’s late in the day to start a real hike, so we lunch in town, find a reasonable-sounding guesthouse for the evening, and take a nice afternoon stroll around Durmitor’s lake, where Chris is adopted by a local dog and we watch the sun fade over the water, mountains reflecting their tranquil mood in its mirror.

Birthday: pas mal, as they say. Also bonus: this night’s guesthouse ranks many stars above our previous evening’s experience. We’re greeted by a vivacious (!!!) host who not only gives us answers to every question we had but also answers to those we didn’t even know we’d wanted to ask. Suffice to say, we’ll be fully-armed to hike tomorrow, as it’s our last day and a last madcap dash through Montenegro, into Bosnia and back into Croatia to get C to his flight on time.

It’s only at dinner that we realise that each of us had the same thought whilst in the shower: our very friendly host lives with his mother in a little house in a little village and nobody knows where we are. But we meet mom in the morning (she prepares the strange and massive hodge-podge brekkie before we set off), and we’re convinced that they are just Montenegro’s sweetest mother-and-son team.

Erm, one hopes…


The next day: more cool nature, crazy roads, and why I’m going to hell.

Our host sends us off to the other side of Durmitor National Park, pointing us towards a hike he suggests will take approx. 5 hrs round-trip. We guestimate it’s a 4-hour drive from here to Dubrovnik, and we want to make the most of our last day. So we clip the hike a little (I think C feels a little guilty for giving me his cold and then sending me up and down mountains with a head feeling like a wax factory), then wend our way through the moon-like hills of this part of the park, stopping occasionally to gape at nature as it unfolds (several-fold) around us. NB: I could spend days here.

silly Google Maps direction aside, join us as we wind our way through Durmitor

We decide we’ve got time for lunch at another (ok, the only) roadside place, and also time to do a quick pass by the Ostrog Monastery, a marble wonder carved into (or superimposed on) the side of a mountain in 1665. Again we climb a white-knuckling switchback road towards this next really weird experience.

First, the pilgrims. People from all over the world come to this monastery to be blessed. They walk the umpteen bajillion steps, barefoot, to pay homage to the saint, who lays wrapped in a shroud in a cave in the monastery. When you get to the upper monastery (there are two), you are met with a sprawl of humanity, the pilgrims (literally hundreds) sleep on mats outside the monastery (to what end, I’m not clear), and queue to take their turn kissing (and, presumably, being blessed by) the shrouded saint. It’s at this point we decide to enter the monastery to see its intricate mosaics. We apparently get in the wrong queue because as I duck into the cave*, I realise I’m in line to view the saint. Who is flanked by a priest. Who is holding a wooden cross at my face so I can kiss it. And so I panic, wave it away, shake my head, bow a little and say no, thank you. To which he answers, aghast, shocked, maybe pissed off, Vere. Arrr. You. Frrum? in a rolling-rrrr voice that sounds more Count Dracula than priestly. (inside my head is shouting: What. Is Happening???) In my humblest voice, I say, The US. The priest nods. I leave (again, cursing my blue passport and all that it represents). Chris has a hearty laugh. I’m going to hell.

We heathens continue up to the top of the monastery, and into the other cave to view the frescoes, well-preserved in the cave’s cool atmosphere. There are thankfully no more run-ins with priests. All I can wonder is what kind of curse I’ve been dealt, and cross fingers, touch the Ganesha that rests around my neck, and hope the rest of the trip is incident-free.

This bit of adventure takes a tad longer than expected: the book does not account for the harrowing road or the local traffic jam (a herd of sheep). But each little experience adds some fiber to the story, and we still have time to drive through Bosnia (country #3!) en route to the airport. The views are not bad as we go…

Tea in Bosnia, check! Passports stamped, check! Airport, check!

And, like that, the week’s adventure comes to an end. C is en route home and I’m on a bus back into Dubrovnik, and to the port from which I’ll take a ferry up to Split tomorrow and continue my wandering through Dalmatia. Just in time: there are 2 cruise ships in port when I arrive.


Some final observations: Montenegro is a tiny country with a history as meandering and unforgiving as its mountain roads. But it’s also beautiful and packed with terrain I never expected, its landscape reads as if nature tried to use everything in its palate to paint this little part of the world: rocky coastlines and breathtaking canyons and daunting mountains and rolling hills… Wild and rustic and rough around the edges, it’s a little place with a giant heart. In contrast to the attitudes we encountered in Croatia, the locals we met were warm and proud and content. Even in the bustling silliness of Budva, we were warmly received by our hostess.

It felt as though Croatia had somewhat sold out to the cruise ship industry, trading tourist € for a slice of their own heritage. And while Montenegro’s reputation as organized crime central is not a secret, one hopes that the tourism blight that has tainted Dubrovnik’s charm will take its time spreading beyond Montenegro’s coast, sparing the inland the tour buses and selfie-crazed throngs.

One can only hope. And look forward to revisiting the mountains, hiking the canyons, and maybe having some of that kačamak or cicvara again.


*Ostrog: how they built this is unknown. For centuries, monks and others have used these caves to hide out and hang out doing their meditative retreats (or, erm, whatever else one does when hiding in a cave in a supremely remote location). And so, the enormous marble façade of the monastery is actually built in front of the caves, creating a surreal structure when viewed from below.

Read more about our road trip: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains | Part III: Fleeing the Russians