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 III: Fleeing the Russians for the countryside

Part I: Arrival and a much-needed holiday | Part II: Into the Mountains

Our view as we approach Budva

The guidebooks do not paint a welcoming picture of Budva (or they do, but perhaps I’m not their target audience): a seaside party town with an exploding club scene (or as explosive a scene as one finds in this part of the world), fuelled by a booming Russian tourist crowd. Welcome to the Daytona Beach of Montenegro. Knowing this, our plan is to find a hotel outside the general hubbub, take a stroll through the old town, and leave early enough in the morning to get into the countryside. This we do, and settle into our surprisingly posh and quite cosy little hotel (booked while we were still atop Petar’s mountain in Lovćen).

The old town is now a familiar formula, with its fortified walls and narrow alleyways. This one is equally charming, but not nearly as big as Kotor’s, nor as bustling as we’d expected. And then we venture down the boardwalk, or the assemblage of the Daytona-esque restaurants and shops that constitute their waterfront. It’s a string of big, over-lit, trying-too-hard-to-look-like-South-Beach seaside restaurant-bars advertising their drink specials, tho it’s the very end of the season and there are literally no customers. We walk by dozens of proprietors who are too done to even bother with their seasonal cat-calls (Where you from? Are you hungry? You look for best dinner? You like feesh?) or to look up from their smartphones to sneer at us as we walk by. The impression it leaves is that of a desperate has-been resort town, where you’d expect a neon sign to pop and fizzle out, or a dangling H from the ‘otel Budva sign to wobble, grab on to a disappearing iota of hope, and fall into the (coarse, cigarette butt-ridden) sand.


Curtain falls on Budva and we wake to have a weird and terrible breakfast at the Hotel Moskva across the street. Had our Russian been better, I think the service might have been too. Budva done and dusted, our next stop is Skadar Lake National Park, where we hope to take a boat ride around this bird sanctuary on the Albanian border.

We drive up another exquisite-yet-harrowing mountain road to the interior of the country and arrive in another end-of-season town where we find a guide ready to serve. Within 30 minutes, we’re on a boat heading into the national park. They’ve supplied us with enough crnogorske priganice (Montenegran fried dough with honey) and cheese (and juice and wine!) to serve a boatload, and it’s late in the season, so we have the entire boat to ourselves.

It’s a treat to be motored through the wetlands and out into the enormous lake. The only problem is that it seems to be late in the season for the birds as well, and we see only a smattering of waterfowl and cormorants. The ride is relaxing enough, but we’re eager to move now… and we’ve got our sights on northern canyons!

Montenegro’s interior is literally littered with mountains and valleys, canyons and rivers. We leave Virpazar and wend our way along what Lonely Planet has dubbed a “thrilling, spectacular stretch of road.”

Morača Canyon; you know, just another horrible roadside view!

Our route, from Podgorica northwards, takes us along the Morača Canyon, over mountains and eventually down an increasingly sketchy dirt road to arrive at a trailhead in the Mrtvica Canyon. We’re greeted by a random guide, waiting for his clients to return from their hike (umm, okay), and he points us the trail with a warning that the locals have not forgotten the war and (oh, by the way) we have Croatian plates on the car. Hike in peace…(and hope our stuff is there when we return)

It was actually the waning daylight that worried me more than his warning as we hiked into a hairy fairy forest so full of greens and blues that photos could not do it justice. The trail, fantastic; the light, not so much, and I was sad to cut this hike short, but relieved to be off the trail before sunset (and to find the car intact – that is not a travel story I wanted to tell).

Another late reservation thanks to international data roaming, and we were off to find a guesthouse in the hills of Kolasin, strategically chosen so we could hike Biogradska Gora in the morning.

The guesthouse owner points us in the direction of Restauran Vodenica, a local place famous for its regional specialties, so we try the kačamak, a potato and cheese dish (this region’s answer to mac and cheese), and cicvara, its partner-in-crime, a polenta and cheese indulgence. We top this off with a local red (pas mal) and wobble back to the guesthouse to crash.

Local specialities served with a pot of “sour milk” (handmade yogurt) on the side. This goes on top of the other stuff. Because, you know, one can never have enough dairy products in one dish. The knives are merely garnish…one barely needs teeth to eat this.

It’s on to Biogradska Gora, and the trail at least 2 locals have professed as the best in the park. I’ll wax poetic about pristine mountain trails, exquisite views and luscious canyon floors. But if I’m honest, the 14+ km slog up a gravel road to a lovely but not fantastic view was not my favourite of the trip thus far. The tea at a trailside farm, with local med (honey) to soothe a creeping cold, did help improve the mood tho.

After tea, we find the trail, finish the hike (shortcuts, yay!), and line up another last-minute guest house. It feels as if we’ve gone 412kms, tho the tally was more like 24, and the only thing I’m looking forward to at this moment in my existence is a hot shower and a comfortable bed in our next stop, a country chalet.

…At which point we reach the Tara Riverside. What they’ve failed to advertise is that the river is alongside the busy local road, and that the chalets are something more like IKEA kit cabins. Too shattered to protest (and, really, for 25€ a night, can one?), we partake in the folly and revel in a tepid shower (the intricate details of which I’ll spare: suffice to say it included a hand-held showerhead and no actual shower enclosure; oddly reminiscent of showering on a boat, or a weird roadside cabin in the middle of nowhere…). We indulge in the local fare for dinner, crash, and high-tail it to Tara Canyon in the morning, wending our way up the switchbacking, windy, foggy roads. Not the way I’d hoped to wake up on C’s birthday, but it is memorable if nothing else.

Chalet #1: so many frightening movies begin with views like this…and one Birthday Celebration.

Next stop: Birthday adventures in Tara Canyon and Durmitor National Park.


Read the other Balkan Doživljaj installments: Part I | Part II