Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Montenegrin Riviera: Kotor & Budva

In addition to a day-trip to Mostar, we also took an excursion to Croatia’s southern neighbor and newly independent nation, Montenegro. The two-hour drive along the sapphire blue Adriatic Coast from Dubrovnik to the Bay of Kotor was a spectacular one, and it definitely ranks on top as one of the most scenic drives after CA’s Highway 1 and Chapman’s Peak Drive in Cape Town.


Montenegro’s scenery, especially the Boka Kotorska, or the Bay of Kotor (UNESCO World Heritage Site), is jaw-dropping beautiful -- Europe’s southernmost fjord is set against the backdrop of steep grey pine-clad mountains. No doubt Montenegro has all the right mix to make this stretch of the Adriatic the next big destination in Europe with sandy beaches, picturesque walled cities, gorgeous coastline, and forest-studded mountains.

We stopped along the side of the road just a few miles outside of Perast for a photo-op of the Boka Kotorska. Once under the control of the Venetians between 1420 to 1797, Perast contains over a dozen of Baroque palaces in addition to numerous Catholic churches including the picturesque Our Lady of the Rock set an artificial island. 


Our next stop was to the lovely town of Kotor, a charming walled city also built by the Republic of Venice, hence the Venetian-influenced architecture of the red orange rooftops and piazzas. Aside from meandering through the narrow atmospheric cobbled streets, you could also make the trek up the steep stairs for a superb view of the town.
Photos around Kotor:
Next we made a stop at Sveti Stefan, a former sleepy fishing village cum luxury cottages set on a tiny peninsula just south of Budva, to admire the gorgeous views. Tourism suffered tremendously in Montenegro during the height of the Yugoslavia Wars in 1990s and Sveti Stefan closed its doors to the public. It is once again a posh resort in waiting as the Singaporean-based Amanresorts is poised to restore the property to its former glory in the coming years.

Montenegro is a bargain destination relative to its neighbor, Croatia. Although not part of the European Union, Montenegro has adopted the Euro as its official currency in hopes to attract foreign investment from its wealthy Western European neighbors as well as the Russians as evident with Russian-financed luxurious Hotel Splendid (it was used in Casino Royale) and the seaside town of Budva, the summer playground for wealthy Russians. Budva was nice, but it had a slight touch of Euro-trash which didn’t appeal to us. Like Kotor and Dubrovnik, Budva also has a nice, but small walled city surrounded by shingle beaches and a nice harbour full of glitzy yachts. We had a pleasant seaside lunch of seafood pasta and mussels along the promenade and enjoyed the glorious sunshine and of course, the view. 

Watch this space, as I am certain that Montenegro will become a trendy destination in the coming years. It is a beautiful place and if time permits during your stay in Dubrovnik, definitely consider heading south to Montenegro.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Bridge of Reconciliation – Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sometimes I travel somewhere because the place holds an obsessive grasp on my memory and my imagination.  Images from television news reports or sound bites overhead on the radio may have imbedded themselves in my head since childhood and, to some degree, subliminally influenced why and where I want to travel.  My love affair with history has led me to many places, partly in an attempt to build a greater understanding of the world along with my place in it, but I have learned in the process that the places you see and visit in life must be viewed within the context of the past with an eye on the present and to the future.  What is compelling about our recent trip to Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro is that the very beaches and town squares in which we spent most of our time were the sites of vicious warfare, ethnic cleansing, and the worst human suffering on the European continent since the end of World War II.      
This region’s recent turbulent history makes it one of the least understood parts of Europe.  Addressing this conflict is relevant because the wounds left from agony are still healing and the scars of war are still visible, especially so in what was one of the most devastated cities of the former Yugoslavia, Mostar located in current day Bosnia and Herzegovina.  In writing this post I spent a lot of time considering the causes, origins, and outcomes of the conflict, but found that the level of detail involved could fill volumes upon volumes of entries and my few paragraphs would not do it justice.    

As with so many conflicts in the world today, the wars in the Western Balkans were born out of unresolved hostilities and poorly constructed solutions to longstanding problems which occurred during the last century.   During most of the twentieth century, the state of Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic federation of various now independent nations including Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and the most recently declared independent state, Kosovo.  At various stages in history they were largely influenced by power struggles within and between the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires, with significant cultural, religious, and linguistic legacies lasting today.  Although communist, Yugoslavia was unlike its counterparts on the same side of the Iron Curtain in that it was proudly “non-aligned” with either the United States or the Soviet Union, providing a distinctively objective communist voice to the “Third World”.  Yet, with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism as a global system the region descended into chaos.  What occurred next is a confusing timeline of events, tactics, strategies, players, and objectives which changed several times throughout the course of the conflicts, leading to even greater difficulty in understanding the “what” and the “why” of this piece of history.  
As each republic declared independence from Serb dominated Yugoslavia, Bosnia followed suit, but faced territorial claims from Croatia to the west and Serbia to the east.  Because this region had been unified for so long under Ottoman rule, then as a combined Yugoslavia, the movement of ethnic populations between borders was significant, with large minorities living in adjacent territories.  Nowhere was this more telling than in Bosnia where the population was majority Bosniak Muslim, but with very large Orthodox Serb and Catholic Croat populations spread across the country.  In 1991 the Karađorđevo Agreement between Croatia and Serbia aimed to partition Bosnia and Herzegovina between them, with each army invading Bosnia to ensure that their respective populations gained autonomous control where they had a majority.  Simultaneously, Serbia launched an aggressive campaign of invasion against independent Croatia in an attempt to maintain economic and political control over this vast, coastal region, with Dubrovnik falling under heavy fire and near annihilation itself.    
The conflict in Bosnia peaked in 1993 with the Siege of Mostar, a Bosnian-Croat (ethnic Croatians living within the borders of Bosnia) campaign to rid the city of its Muslim population with the aid of the independent Croatian government who were also fighting off Serb attacks themselves at the same time within their own borders and at sea in the Adriatic.  Atrocities from all sides were committed in the form of systematic executions, civilian bombing raids, internment, rape, and murder.  

Bullet marks on building in Mostar, B-H:

After our time in the Western Balkans, and our excursion into Bosnia in particular, I have thought about which one of my experiences captured the meaning of what happened there.  Hovering high above the Neretva River in Mostar is the Stari Most, a sixteenth century Ottoman bridge that was destroyed during the Siege of Mostar in 1993 and rebuilt in 2004 with aid from the World Bank and UNESCO.  At the time of its original construction it was considered one of the most marvelous architectural achievements in the world and became an icon of a united, multi-ethnic Bosnia within the Ottoman Empire.  Travel is my way of bridging the gap between my own preconceived notions of a place and its reality. 

Today the real significance of Stari Most is not just its architectural splendor or its technical superiority, but rather that it is a living statement which symbolizes the link between the past and the future, between hatred and reconciliation.  Walking the bridge from east to west, you realize that Mostar itself encompasses a narrative of the world within its medieval walls that has been relevant for centuries; that beneath the rubble and ashes of war, the foundations of peace are strong and are the bedrock of reconstruction.  Today, just fifteen years after the end of the fighting, the nations of the former Yugoslavia live in relative harmony with their neighbors.  Keeping in mind their shared tragic history and recent efforts at renewed engagement, I feel confident that again there exists a strong base on which to build a mutually beneficial bridge to the future.    - K.V.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Week of Sun and Sea in Dubrovnik

Having never been to the Balkans and looking for some sun before the long winter hibernation, Keenan and I booked a late summer getaway to Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Sea. Also looking to escape hot and smoggy Hong Kong, my sister and brother-in-law also joined us on this trip for a week of sea, sun, and relaxation in beautiful Croatia. In a recent issue of Conde Nast Traveler, the author mentioned that September was the perfect month to visit Dubrovnik as the temperature is at a perfect 75F degree with a gentle sea breeze and less crowded. CN Traveler was right -- the weather was great (except one evening of stormy weather) and the gorgeous crystal clear water was amazing; however, to our surprise, Dubrovnik was still flooded with day-trippers from major cruise ships, all elderly retired people squeezed into the old city walls of Dubrovnik. Tip: research cruise schedule and avoid Old Town like the Bubonic Plague on cruise ship days. 

Dubrovnik Old Town isn’t very big, but it is extremely picturesque and absolutely beautiful with all of its ornate churches and plaza, atmospheric harbour side restaurants, cute narrow alleyways and steep stairs.  You should allow at least a day to explore Old Town and walk the perimeter of the old city walls, and then reward yourself with an ice-cold Croatian pivo.

Around Old Town Dubrovnik:

The main drag, Stradun, as well as the parallel street, Prijeko, are extremely touristy and I would avoid eating here at all cost. Instead, seek out restaurants on little side streets such as Mea Culpa on Za Rokum for woodfire pizza, or Lokanda Peskarija on Na Ponti for specialty seafood, including black risotto, octopus salad, grilled squid, mussels, and oysters. Also note that whole fish (sold by the kilo) is insanely expensive, and there isn’t a lot of variety in terms of cuisine except for Italian and Croatian.

Croatian seafood:

Rather than staying in Old Town, we booked a two-bedroom/two-bath villa situated on a clifftop overlooking Miramare Bay with a small semi-private beach below – it was our little oasis for the week. Mornings were spent lounging on terrace sipping coffee, afternoons being lazy on the beach, and evenings dining alfresco in Dubrovnik Old Town, or a sundowner at Buza Bar, an outdoor bar perched on rocks outside the old city walls with perfect views of Lokrum Island. Ah, the good life. 

The Villa and Beach:

Our private Buza and sundowner:

Drinks at Buza Bar, Old Town Dubrovnik:

Aside from sun and relaxation, our main objective on this trip was also to explore the region’s complex history as well as its natural beauty. We took two excursions to neighbouring countries: Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina (B-H) and Kotor/Budva in Montenegro, which we will write about separately as it deserves its own post. We also visited the nearby island of Mjlet, which is only 90 minutes away by the fast passenger ship, for an afternoon of biking, kayaking, swimming, and hiking around the forest-clad island. According to Homer’s epic tale, Odysseus was held on Mjlet Island by nymph Calypso for nearly seven years.On the island, there are two “lakes” (think lagoons): Malo Jerezo (small lake) and Veliko Jerezo (large lake), both perfect for sunbathing as the clear blue-green water is swallow and warm. We also went kayaking around the lake, spotting loads of jellyfish and schools of fish. If you have time for one island excursion, make it Mjlet and enjoy the beauty of this island.
Mjlet Island:

Croatia is definitely a hot destination at the moment. Go to Split and Hvar Island if you are looking for nightlife and partying, but if you are looking to get away for some peace and quiet, head to Dubrovnik, and be sure to take an excursion to its neighboring countries.

More to come from Bosnia & Herzegovina  and Montenegro...