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

The Balkan Doživljaj Part II: Up (and up. and up.) into the Mountains of Montenegro

[Read Part I here!]

Having escaped the throngs, we catch a local bus to take us to the main bus terminal to catch a fancier bus to take us to the airport to get the rental car we’ve hired to get us from points A to Z (and several others, like B, K, S, L, O and D*), and back to again in a week… it’s like a series of semi-strategic moves as we shuttle ourselves to the next square in the game of What’s Next!?

Car, check! Green card that clears us to move freely in and out of the surrounding borders, check! Snacks, check! And they’re off!

A colleague of mine whose family is from this area had told me that crossing the border into Montenegro is like going back in time 10-15 years. As we wend our way towards Kotor, over the border and through the (hills, villages and gorgeous seaside vistas), I’m reminded of his words as we pass through villages that look as if they’ve been bodged-together from scraps of Soviet-era block housing, brick, medieval limestone, corrugated metal and palm fronds (in not necessarily that order or quantity). Interspersed in the weird architecture are ancient palazzos, churches and other structures, each (IMHO) warranting its own page in Lonely Planet. Kotor is nestled in a rocky, fjord-like bay**; a limestone mountain backdrop springing majestically from the sea. The photos do not even do it justice.

Never mind the cruise ships… Kotor is still much more likeable than Dubrovnik

And it’s bustling. Kotor has become both a cruise ship destination and something of a smaller, sweeter Dubrovnik to the south. Because we’ve raced a cruise ship here (and there’s another already in port) we’ve decided to wander around the old town, climb up to the top of the fortress, and find lodging on the outskirts of town to avoid the bustle (and the congestion) in the morning.

The old town is a pleasant surprise: its narrow, labyrinthine streets, now a familiar folly from a few days in Dubrovnik, are softer and warmer and much more inviting than those to the north. Venetian lions flank every gate, many a corner and a few fountains dotted throughout the town. So we wander the alleys, marvel at the cats of Kotor (there are hundreds, perhaps thousands here – there is even a Cats of Kotor museum down one of these narrow streets) and bask in the Mediterranean sunshine.

Kotor’s fortress was built into the near-vertical limestone foothills of Mt. Lovćen (which we are to hike tomorrow), and it, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (actually, two: it’s part of the Natural and Cultuo-Historic Region of Kotor as well as the Venetian Works of Defence between the 16th and 17th Centuries). The town itself dates back to Ancient Roman times (Montenegro was part of Dalmatia too), and while the original fortress on the hill was built by the Illyrians c. the 5th Century, the fortress of Sveti Ivan (the one that stands there now), was built some 1000 years later. To get to the top, you first have to navigate to a back corner of the old city, find the guy at the entry gate and pay a fee to enter the city walls (NB: the book said 3€, we paid 8€; we couldn’t determine whether the fee had gone up or the toll-taker was making a side-living fleecing tourists). From there, you begin the climb. To the top, it’s roughly 1200 metres, or approx. 1350 steps.

Did I mention that it’s quite steep?

These city walls are higher than Dubrovnik’s, and perhaps this has kept out the nouveau-posh cafés and trinket shops besmirching its character. But along the way, there are a couple of old men selling water from a bucket and snacks from a blanket laid out on the old stones. Here, it just fits. We’ve come prepared (with water and trail food, but perhaps not expecting the day’s heat: it’s 25 and there’s not a cloud in the sky!), so we slog upwards past the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, noted for reportedly curing plague victims in the 1500s (also noted as the cover shot on Lonely Planet: Montenegro). The trail then continues up to the top, where, from his fortress, the spirit of Sveti Ivan watches over a now-peaceful Kotor.

If my Photoshop skills were better, I’d use them to blot out the two cruise ship-sized eyesores from an otherwise gorgeous view.

An aside about our itinerary: We had a guide book, some websites, and a rough plan of seeing as much of Montenegro (and possibly Albania) as the week permitted. No rules, no reservations, and fingers crossed for access to Wi-Fi so we could secure a place to crash for the night.


The day: simply wonderful, and we had yet to make it to our (first of many) last-minute choice of lodging, a B&B in a restored 16th Century Venetian Palazzo in the (pick one or more adjectives: adorable, charming, romantic, lovely) exquisite seaside town of Perast. We had this tiny town virtually to ourselves, as the cruise ship folk don’t make it here and the regular tourists have mostly gone for the season. The architecture alone in this little gem is worth a night or two. Did I mention that there were loop-holes in the walls of the room?! (I had to look that term up: these are the slits in castle or fortress walls from which guards can shoot arrows). Ours had, of course, been restored as windows (not needed anymore, as the conquering armies are now safely tucked away in their cell-like berths aboard their floating cities).

The views from our B&B were divine, and in our short stay we could feel the different moods of this enthralling village: the nostalgic undertones of the Venetian stone buildings, old and new; the warmth of the sunset reflecting in a flat-calm bay; the whimsical fog dancing with the same at sunrise… this is a place that calls one back.

Morning came too quickly, as I wanted to revel in the understated luxury. I watched the fog play at the water’s surface as the sun warmed the air and morning dawned another perfect day in Montenegro. Today’s first adventure: a hair-raising, panoramic, thrill-ride up Kotor’s back road, a narrow, serpentine, one-lane (2-way) road that winds you up to Mt. Lovćen.

(sped up a tad for dramatic effect)

We arrive at the top unscathed and are rewarded with what Google calls “Best View of Kotor.” The rest of the views are not half bad either. For the effort, C wins all the adventure points for this drive! Had I been behind the wheel, I would have ended up pleading for mercy in a corner of one of the road’s 25 hairpin turns. And that was just the morning’s adventure (there’s also a precious resident stray mutt up here that, for some moments, I consider smuggling home with me).

As it turned out, by driving up the snaky road and following Google Maps into Lovćen National Park, we overshot the trailhead and ended up in a parking lot at the top of the mountain. So we did the hike in reverse, first visiting the mausoleum of Petar Petrovic Njegoš (Montenegro’s own philosopher prince. Ish.), the site situated atop Lovćen’s 2nd highest peak, with its breathtaking views of the valley and surrounding mountains. The day was so clear, we could see into Bosnia. And, who knows…Montenegro is so small that perhaps we could even see into Albania. With these views, I guess they wanted to ensure Petar could look out over his kingdom in the afterlife as well.

Beginning with the hike down the 461 steps we had already hiked up, we found a rocky trail that led to dry, grassy fields, and came out on a local road in a mountain village that was quite obviously taking a deep breath after its busy summer season. So we had the outdoor restaurant virtually to ourselves, where we lunched in style on local cheeses and Montenegran salad. They present salad here in sort-of an “assemble-your-own” format, so each meal has been an interactive experience thus far. The local cheese, sir, is divine; the air, fresh; the travellers, sated. And the travellers push on, back towards the top, but not before missing a cue on the trail, ending up back at the park ranger’s station and having to walk along the road we rode in, then meeting back up with the trail a few kms ahead.

All in all, another stellar day. Montenegro is looking like a winner already.

Tomorrow’s adventure: Budva (the Russian Riviera of the Balkans) and into the National Parks of central Montenegro. Yay!


*Budva, Kotor, Skadar, Lovćen, Ostrog and Durmitor to name a few…

**while it looks like a fjord, Kotor (like Sydney Harbour and many more like Kotor up and down the European coastlines) is actually a ria, or a drowned river valley that remains open to the sea.

Read more… Part I: Arrival and a Much-Needed Holiday