Mostar now

Bosnia-Herzegovina. Why haven’t I been dreaming about seeing this place before?

I really hadn’t thought of it, and when I was looking at the map before I left for this latest trip my eyes skimmed right over this country. I wanted to see Montenegro and Albania, and maybe Serbia if I could get it squeezed in; Bosnia-Herzegovina wasn’t one that even registered for me. But on my first afternoon in Dubrovnik, though, a quick conversation had me convinced that I should give it a chance.

A couple things I learned on the ride up: before reaching our destination our little tour group of about 16 people would need to pass through customs and border control 3 times, and the same again on the return. I have to admit I’ve gotten kinda used to the European norm or not needing to worry much about borders, but Croatia is part of the European Union while Bosnia and Herzegovina is not. And, there’s a small little section of Bosnia that reaches the coast in between Croatia. I guess this goes back several hundred years: when the Turkish Ottomans ruled Bosnia, they allowed Croatia to continue to run the mines for silver and such on what became their land, in exchange Croatia allowed them seaport access. And it stuck.

Our route scribbled in red

Our first stop in Bosnia-Herzegovina was Kravice Falls. A remote area that would be difficult to find on your own if you didn’t already know which little marker to look for leading to the winding rural roads. There’s an entrance fee of 5€ now, but don’t let that deter you. The falls almost sneak up on you from the forested hills, but once you get to the first bend and see the cliffs drop away and hear the rush of the water you wonder how something so incredible could have seemed so hidden a moment earlier. It’s like a mini Niagara Falls in the forest, but with sparkling shades of emerald everywhere instead of city neon lights. IMG_1953

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After about an hour spent staring at the falls, it was time to move on again.  During the 45 minutes or so that it took to drive to Mostar, the guide told us about what life was like during the war in the ’90s. I still find it hard to wrap my head around the idea that during my idyllic childhood there were people trapped in their city being shot at if they stepped outside, with the food supply so cut many were forced to pick grass after dark to eat in order to survive.  The main bridge that the city of Mostar is famous for was bombed and completely destroyed during this war, on November 9, 1993.  It had stood connecting the city since its completion by the Turkish Ottomans in 1566, and the destruction was later considered a war crime. The bridge that I saw is an exact replica, built with a few pieces of the original that had been pulled out from the river, completed and opened in 2004.IMG_1975

The city and river and surrounding area is beyond beautiful, and the moody skies just prior to the rain felt exactly right to me after the somber stories I’d just heard. I’m told the river is this colour because of copper minerals in the area.  Either way, it’s real and it’s breathtaking. IMG_1981IMG_1983

The reconstruction of an entire city takes time, of course, even during such an ambitious drive such as this country has had.  While it’s easy for us tourists to forget the tragic history and simply enjoy the streets of shops and restaurants and dramatic scenery, if you choose to look there are reminders everywhere. Down side streets there are many buildings still in ruin, some in the middle of being renovated and others already given over to the overgrown flora. Bullet holes still visible in many of the walls.  It makes me wonder what real, day-to-day life is like here.  The half hour we had with a local guide didn’t give much of an answer to that.  She spoke about how lucky they were under the socialist rule as part of the former Yugoslavia with almost no unemployment, and free schooling and healthcare.  She mentioned briefly that there were tensions, and that because there was no freedom to express oneself publicly, their private activities and faith meant that much more to them as a society.  The faiths and culture groups have caused further division, with the Muslims from the 400 years of Turkish rule and the Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs in an uneasy union split across the city.  Even today, the chipper and cheerful guide said that there is still two of everything in Mostar; you can go to a Muslim hospital or a Catholic one, or school or police force or nearly anything you like. “How wonderful to have two options of everything in such a small city!”IMG_0393

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New murals
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Old doorways

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 I got the sense that tourists were welcome, and I would highly recommend this area as a stop on your next itinerary. The stalls full of local and handmade goods are great to browse through, with lace and lavender next to Byzantine platters and Turkish lamps or local grappa and of course gelato stands.

Or, the views of the city alone are worth the drive. I’ll leave you with one more image, then I’m off to the next stop!

Like a Box of Chocolate…

Last post was about taking time, being home and enjoying a “normal” life. But just days since writing that, the travel whirlwind has whipped me away again and I’ve been running through these weeks with a wild rush. Continue reading Like a Box of Chocolate…

Istanbul introduction

Constantinople. Ottoman Empire. Byzantine. Ancient Roman Empire. This all has intrigued me for years and Turkey has always been high on my wish list.

Finally…

I’ve booked a tour from Istanbul that will show me 10 days of highlights from the western side of the country and I am so keen to get started! Right now I’m at the first hotel now after a 2-hour drive from the airport (who knew it was such a huge busy city?! 13 – 16 million citizens) and unfortunately I arrived just too late to meet the group for the initial welcome/introduction. But as it turns out, the 38 people on this tour are mostly Australians living in London. There are a few from New Zealand, and a few more Aussies that still live in Australia. One couple from Paraguay, one from Poland, and me as the sole North American rep. Should be a good time!

My first dinner in the country was a perfect start to set the tone of my travels. I nibbled on a piping hot lamb kebab grilled in a crispy pita wrap and sipped Turkish tea from a delicate fluted glass at an outdoor cafe. Fruit-scented sheesha and melodies from local musicians wafted around me, and I basked in the atmosphere.

I have a bit more time in Istanbul on my own after the tour ends, so I’ll circle back and write about the city then. For this post I’ll just leave off with some visuals for anyone armchair travelling with me.

Little Leeds Layover

The English countryside is so iconic, no? Maybe it comes from our commonwealth history, where I can picture all these British expats gathering in the 1800s to reminisce about their good old days with sheep-dotted emerald hills, low stone walls and grand manor estates. I think that conversation may have perpetuated throughout the generations to diffuse this image as my instinctual assumption of the United Kingdom.

I had the chance the other day to see this all in person again. And a day in the English dales is just as I’d imagined.

My dear sweet friends have been living in Leeds for the past couple months, and they are gracious enough to allow me to drop in on their doorstep without much warning, even making me feel like they’re happy to have their work and plans disrupted (Thank you!!) so of course that’s just what I did. I was travelling again with an uncertain timetable, and wasn’t sure I would be able to come visit, but I’m so happy it all aligned and I was able to arrive.

Here’s a travel tip, though, for anyone thinking of following my footsteps: most of the money I’d saved by booking a standby flight was then eaten up with booking a last minute train ticket from London to Leeds. I wasn’t expecting that to cost so much!! You’d be much better off to arrange your rail pass in advance! Thanks to Jeanette’s suggestion, I found my best option on thetrainline.com.

Anyway, from train tickets back to my train of thought. My unofficial tour guides had a pretty incredible itinerary for us, so I’ll now pass this along as a “One Day in Leeds” suggestion for you.

Start the morning with a walk to city centre, picking up coffee from Cafe Nero and sipping it while continuing to stroll. Take in the shops built into old Arcades and look for the golden owl statues set throughout. Apparently this is the symbol for the city of Leeds…. I meant to look up the story behind that but haven’t made the time for it yet. If anyone knows, please feel free to write in the comments.

After lunch, a drive out to Bolton Abby and the Yorkshire countryside. This is a beautiful drive through the peaceful scenic country – along harrowing narrow roads and blind corners with ridiculously fast speed limits!

Certainly worth the drive, the grounds around the Abby are lovely and lush, and it’s easy to imagine how life may have been centuries ago in this very spot. There are the stones used to make a footpath across the river that the monks from the Abby used to cross, fun to hop across now, as well as ruins from the outcrop buildings. If you prefer to hike, gentle trails run through the woods and along the river.

Photo by Jeff

Before leaving, take a pit stop at the cafe where it would seem a spot of tea and scone would be just right… or you could just get a soda to go if you’re rushing the way I was…

Next stop, a quick stretch of the legs to hike up the “Cow and Calf” outcropping. This was an old quarry, and the sudden stone cliffs towering out of the green hill is something to see. Listen for the bleating of sheep across the way as you walk to the top, and notice the way heather and ferns blanket the ground everywhere except the boulders.

Graffiti seems so much better when it’s 100 years old

Back in Leeds, excellent dinner options seem endless. Or nip into a pub and share your stories over an ale. And there you have it. A great day almost guaranteed!

As I was there to visit friends, we spent an evening around a table with others of their friends. We talked a lot about travel, and life as an expat, and the weather. People always seem to talk about the weather, hey? I remember that part because I said something about how cold it was currently, and one of the girls who lived in the UK made an offhand comment about their weather, saying “it’s not hot here like in Canada” which made me laugh as it’s not a sentence you’d often hear in most places around the world! Canada is known for polar bears!!

I had to run to catch my train back to London, and as much as I was excited to get started on my “real” travels through Turkey, I wished I had more time. But there you have it: One Day in Leeds. I hope you enjoy it, though in my opinion to really get the best you’d need to become friends with my Jeff & Jeanette.

Next time from Istanbul! Ciao!

Stampede City

I’ve said a few times before, I love the city I live in.    And this is especially true in the summer.   The big blue sky, warm air and sunshine, happy friendly people… what’s not to love?!  Also a highlight of the summer – The Calgary Stampede, which is what I’m thinking of today.  Every July, the City of Calgary takes 10 days to host the Stampede; billed as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”   Now, Calgarians are generally split into either loving or loathing the Stampede.  I imagine it must be similar in the major tourist cities, where locals end up inconvenienced by the swarms of crowds on their streets (Amsterdam, I’m thinking of you here!).  I can understand there are some valid reasons a person might not want to be around, so how about I list them quickly, get that out of the way, and then move on to why I love it instead?

So here we go.  A mostly-unbiased opinion of the Negatives:  For ten days each year,

  • Downtown is crowded. The trains are packed, parking sucks, and traffic is slow.
  • Alcohol consumption rockets and public drunkenness becomes normal
  • Modesty seems to take a break (ummm…. #trampede is a real thing)
  • Some people think animals are being taken advantage of.  Animals Resting

And so here is where I need to vehemently disagree.   The rodeo professionals love their animals, and I know absolutely everything is done to protect and care for animals.  For example, one year I was behind-the-scenes in the barns with my friend who was hired to massage the chuckwagon horses.  Yes, Equine Massage Therapy is a booming industry.  And the photo is from this year, where even in the exhibition barns they ensure times throughout the day for the animals to get breaks from all the city slickers gawking.

So maybe you saw those drawbacks, and have decided that’s enough to make you want to run for the hills to avoid it all.  That’s ok, may I recommend Jasper or Banff?  But if you’re still with me, even for curiosity’s sake, please keep reading.

Personally, I automatically love the Calgary Stampede because of my positive childhood memories.  My family would come to the city for a day, and we’d delightfully dizzy ourselves on the fairground rides and cheer my Dad on as he won us plush toys at the carnie games.  (To this day, I can’t walk past a ‘strong man’ game without flashing back to him)  We’d watch the rodeo and chuckwagon race highlights on tv every night after dinner, crowding around and crowing when our pick did well.

Another reason why the ten days of Stampede are something I look forward to is the camaraderie this city experiences.  Picture it a little like Cowboy Christmas; with decorations up at businesses citywide, special music played everywhere, staff parties, and days off from work!  Just substitute carols with country twang.   Even without entering the Stampede grounds there is a festive feel throughout the city.  We get to wear jeans to work almost regardless of industry, and cowboy boots are the exact right accessory to every outfit.  My cousin, Erin, demonstrates that perfectly, below.IMG_8123

Erin's Instagram post
erin.slemp: The only place it’s acceptable to wear all denim and eat poutine perogies… #calgarystampede #canadiantuxedo #stampede2018 #calgaryalberta

She brings up another great point: The midway food is an attraction all its own.  I personally can’t go without at least one corn dog (battered and in a pickle this year!) and the mini donuts with cinnamon sugar, but I also snarfed down some deep-fried coffee balls, brisket and poutine, and charcoal ice cream.  IMG_1299

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Me and more cousins

Much more than the midway, though.  The Calgary Stampede is a cultural bridge, reminding us of our heritage as a ranching and rodeo frontier town, as well as the Indigenous roots of the Canadian Prairies.  I took some time this year to explore more of that, and I am absolutely in awe the First Nations set up at the Stampede.  This is exactly the type of thing I would flock to any time I travel to a foreign country – representation of the uniqueness of the cultural history – and I was awestruck seeing this again from my own hometown.

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Tipi skyline
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Watching a traditional dance
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Elder blessing
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traditional cooking

A quick video clip from my cell phone, so my apologies for the lack of quality production, but I had to show you a snippet of one of the dances.  Make sure you have sound on to hear the singers from the drum circle just outside the image.

wow.

You know, this far into the post and I haven’t even scratched the surface yet of everything that’s on offer at the Stampede.  Try learning to two-step at one of the beer gardens, attend a concert, watch the rodeo and events, learn about current agriculture, worry about the motocross daredevils hired to entertain, view the incredible western artworks, watch the grandstand show or the marching show band, and go to one of the FREE pancake breakfasts or (and!) BBQ lunches that are everywhere across the city.  The list goes on and on.   You’ll need to come here and see it for yourself next July.Stampede active

After ten days of “Yahoo!” excitement, the dust is settling, and the city is returning to a normal urban centre.  Boots and hats are tucked far into the back of closets again, safe until next year.  We start to pick up on all the work that was missed, but first all the stories are swapped around the water cooler.   Love it or hate it, The Calgary Stampede gives everyone a story to tell.

Calgary Ali
Calgary Ali

Sunset on the Calgary Stampede

 

 

 

 

 

Cebu City Faux Pas

Arriving at the hotel in Cebu City completely exhausted, I feel like I couldn’t stand up another second longer when the key to the room is handed over. We finally arrived around 7am local time on Friday morning, and considering the roughly 26 hours on the go and the 15 hour time difference I was ready to collapse the second my bed was in sight. But it’s worth it!

Two and a half hours later I’m wide awake again and buzzing with excitement to get out and explore. I think that may have been the deepest sleep I’ve had in recent memory, and I wake up after that nap feeling completely rested and re-energized. Unfortunately, Mike’s still sawing logs… not that I can blame him – he’s not used to lack of sleep the way I am. Trying to keep quiet and not disturb him, I distract myself with my emails and writing for as long as I can sit still, then tiptoe to my backpack and dig out my running shoes. I am convinced that a solid workout is my best way to tackle the jet lag, so off I go.

Our hotel in Cebu has a lovely little pool, and I chose here as our starting-off point exactly for this: it’s nice to have the first day of vacation free to lay around, and preferably on pool loungers basking in the tropical sunshine!

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This isn’t my photo – I took it from the hotel’s Instagram @questhotelcebu  (Somehow I was too busy enjoying the sunshine and a novel to take any photos!)

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It’s the next day now, and I’m back at an airport waiting for a domestic flight to Palawan…. the seemingly endless delays are handy, at the very least, for me to be able to jot down the day.

Cebu is in the middle of a party as we arrived – it’s the Sinulog festival this weekend and everywhere I look there are bright flags and artwork decorating the streets; a distinctive drum-and-xylophone song being played on a seemingly endless loop with costumed dancers weaving through the crowds. Speaking of crowds, we hadn’t realized just how much that would be when we set out to explore after breakfast. I guess our first clue should have been that the roads where we were headed were being closed to vehicles… but we didn’t know what we were getting into and set off anyway to see San Pedro’s Fort and Magellan’s Cross for a bit of local history.IMG_E0946

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Trying to get back in time for our flight was a bit of a challenge as well, as of course by then the streets were entirely closed to traffic.  Mike’s Google Map said it would be about a 35 minute walk so that didn’t seem too bad, and we set off.  Somehow, and honestly I’m still not even sure how we did this, we found ourselves walking upstream against the parade the whole time, even when we tried to veer off to other streets.  Actually, parade’s not even the right word – procession.  Which makes me feel even worse… we’re very sorry for any offence we might have shown.  We at least stopped and faced with the crowds when we noticed a holy image being carried.  It was beautiful, though, and a very humbling experience witnessing the devotion of so many Catholics.IMG_E0948IMG_0950

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That 35 minute walk took us almost an hour and a half; where we uttered sorry/pardon me/excuse us please/I’m so sorry probably about a hundred gazillion times.

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Cebu seems like a really great city, full of a very friendly population and some fun historical sites, but I’m really looking forward to getting out and on to the beaches of other islands!

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AirAsia from Cebu to Puerto Princesa late at night

Via 8 hours in Shanghai

Destination: Cebu City in central Philippines, departing from Calgary, western Canada. That takes a lot of travel time between the two, especially when one is travelling on extra cheap tickets that aren’t as direct as could be otherwise. But do I mind? Nope – not a bit! In fact, I’m rather pleased with how it turned out, and that was even before I realized we totally won the Economy Flight Seat Lottery. You know how when you’re walking up to your departure gate and just hoping that the person who sits beside you holds similar beliefs in hygiene & personal boundaries as yourself… that’s hoping for a win in modern economy flying. And somehow on these flights Mike and I scored the jackpot: a free upgrade on the first flight, then an entire row of four seats to ourselves where we could stretch out and sleep on the next flight, and the only empty seat on the plane next to me on the last flight. The whole time I kept thinking how grateful I was for these little perks!!

I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if some of that luck may have been due to the agent who first checked us in. As he flipped through my passport he commented on how full it was, and we bantered briefly about my expensive addiction, then his face changed to mock shock when he saw Mike’s empty passport. The three of us shared a laugh about the drastic contrasts in our experiences before he wished us a happy journey and we rushed off to clear security.

Our itinerary included a nearly eight-hour stopover in Shanghai before the last flight, and I was fairly confident that would give us enough time to escape the airport so Mike could get a little taste of China. I had been a couple years earlier, and loved Shanghai, so I was excited about showing that to someone new. Generally a tourist visa is required ahead of time to enter China, but select cities will permit travellers with confirmed onward tickets 72 hours to visit the city. Our luggage was tagged all the way through to Cebu so we didn’t need to worry about hauling that around with us, and there is a separate line in the customs hall for temporary transit visas that moved quite quickly.

The easiest way to the city’s famous sights from the airport is to take the Maglev train. The station connected to the airport has a display where I learned all about the Maglev – for instance, that’s short for Magnetic Levitation – and this train reaches speeds of 430 km/hour. I loved that we could skip an hour-long cab ride for eight minutes on the train! Mike loved the train.Maglev Mike

After the Maglev we transferred to the underground metro, and then up to East Nanjing and the hub of tourism in Shanghai. It’s a little like Times Square with the busy pedestrian streets full of towering shops and bright digital ads… but unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of this – so I’m supplementing with shots from the last time I was there to at least give some visual…

 

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(Pretend this is a night in January and not a day in June)

After some rubbernecking and shopping we continued to walk through the light drizzle to the Bund, along the river.   Such a beautiful area.  One side is lined with huge old colonial buildings, majestic and stately; the other side across the river is a dazzling contrast of playful ultra-modern skyscrapers. IMG_0938IMG_0935

Strolling several blocks along the Bund, dodging selfie sticks wielded by other tourists and stopping for our own photos (ok, and selfies) we soaked up as much of the city’s sense as we could in the short time we had.  Circling back to the metro we caught the trains and returned to the airport, just in time to buy more coffee and board our last flight to the Philippines.  Perfect.