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!

Ali on an airplane

It’s early on a Tuesday morning at the moment, and I’m wedged into a tiny economy seat somewhere above the Alps. I’m pretending I’m a giant right now, with my long long legs folded up (gracefully, of course) nearly knees to nose and my elbows tucked in tight to my rib cage to avoid accidentally bashing any of the posse of passengers around me. In a way I have to be thankful for modern air travel – because the reality is I’ve got rather short legs and in a strange silly way I’m quite enjoying this moment of make-believe that I’m suddenly in possession of long lovely limbs! Who would’ve ever expected to be happy for airlines condensing the seats for increased capacity?!

Not long from now I’ll be touching down and disembarking at Dubrovnik, Croatia. And I realized just now that I have absolutely no idea what I’ll do or where I’ll go when I arrive! This trip has come about quickly and I haven’t spent any time yet looking up or making any plans. Typically I’ll book a room for my first night before I arrive… but I forgot to do that this time!

Honestly this is how I love to travel. I have no timeline or itinerary, no work to think about, and all my decisions can be entirely in the moment if I want. Look at me embracing the mindfulness movement!

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Several hours later now and I’m settled into my bunk bed at a hostel in the city. It’s been a while since I’ve stayed in a dorm room-style hostel, but I’ve got a privacy curtain around my bed, a light and and outlet to charge my phone, and wifi so that’s all I need! I know I’m about a million years older than the rest of my roommates, but it doesn’t matter. I feel like since I’m in the same stage of life – unencumbered and trying to figure out what to do now with the rest of my life – that it gives me a pass to be here too!

I spent the afternoon walking around Dubrovnik, not the famous walled Old City yet, I’ll save that for later, but along the pier and around the central city. It’s beautiful here. The sea and the rolling mountains clamouring for space, white stone buildings with red tile roofs wedged in with a wild array of trees everywhere. A light rain started to fall while I was still out, the kind that doesn’t seem to soak but is just enough to add a sheen of sparkle to the world.

First glimpse of Dubrovnik
Take a Shuttle from the airport, only 45kn (€6)

As I was walking this evening, I chatted with someone who said that Mostar is a great place to go on an easy day trip from Dubrovnik. The weather here is supposed to be rainy again tomorrow so I decided I’d take up that suggestion and go! Bosnia and Herzegovina here I come!!

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…

In the Gaps

There’s a quote I came across a while ago, and today it’s on my mind again.  It’s by the brilliant Margaret Atwood:

“We lived in the gaps between stories”

And it’s not so much that this is a powerful quote, or is one that might make us stop in our tracks and consider something new.  Margaret Atwood has so many great quotes that do that – go ahead and google her – but this one is just where I am right now.   And I think it might be a good transition to help me get back to this blog after letting it sit ignored for so many months.  Just in the simple obvious, there’s been a huge gap in my blogging.  I last posted in the fall, and I didn’t even finish publishing everything about my travels through Turkey.   I have so many drafts that I started and will likely never return to, unfortunately.  I wanted to tell about the ancient cites in Turkey, and the epic natural sights, plus the cities and food and vibrancy.    But life was changing and I was busy living so there’s gaps left in my external chronicles.

Here’s a little sample of what I had meant to write about:

I bet you can relate.  We scroll through stories online and keep up with others’ lives digitally, and we post our own hoping to capture a good memory, or to gain validation.  As silly as it may seem to say; the obvious is easily overlooked; Despite our connectivity in 2019 we still have life outside of what we share as our social media stories.  I have to admit, for a minute there last year I was beginning to getting caught up in the idea of being an Influencer.  And even while I knew that my paltry 250ish Instagram followers left me about 2,000 short of what would qualify as a fledgling social media influencer, I’d still daydream about it.   My unplugging from this blog and from writing was not some grand gesture by design, not a deliberate retreat to ‘find myself again’ and come back all glowy and full of marketable tidbits of wisdom.  Nope.  I was just battling a bit of writer’s block and also just really busy.  Living the little details of daily life, slogging away at work but also having fun with the people who mattered to me already.

I lived in the gaps between the stories.  To be literal I say that because I spent about 6 months without posting anything on AimlesslyAli.  Life went on without the spotlight.  More poetically, the gap allowed for an echoing in my life.  Words I had sent out ages ago came back to me and I was reminded that building up love and fostering purpose in myself and others is what life’s all about.  Even without any intentionality, it turns out I did learn something.  Here’s what I learned: I don’t need to be paid for my words, or to get free samples for photos I take.  I want my influence to be personal, in real life, in my day to day connections with people who cross my path.  I hope to be able to demonstrate that kindness and gentleness ARE a form of strength rather than just the aloofness we tend to associate with mental toughness.  So this aimless wanderer is now on a deliberate path to show love to others in the gaps.  Though, let’s be real – this’ll likely be accomplished without a map and written with drifting thoughts and paragraphs of run-on sentences….. I am still Aimlessly Ali, after all.  (who’d in a heartbeat accept a sponsored trip in exchange for promoting the location if I ever got the opportunity!!!)

Gallipoli

This morning I had my heart broken a little more again. You’d think I should know by now, expect it even, as it’s not the first time. But I can’t seem to steel myself and each new experience has my eyes well with tears.

These war memorials get me every time.

Today we’ve just left the area of Gallipoli, now more famous as Anzac Cove. All the Australians on my tour knew of this already, it’s one of their culturally defining moments in history, but this particular battle from WWI was missing my from knowledge. It’s funny how I used to just assume that everything I learned in school was pretty much all there was to know about major world events. Now I know so much more, and am just aware of how clueless I still am.

Difficult terrain added to the troops’ problems

Back in the midst of the war, The Allied forces had a plan to take control of the peninsula and waterway, which would allow them to transport goods to Russia. They assumed if they could take Constantinople (Istanbul), the Ottoman Empire would leave the war and it would have the double effect of allowing their safe access to the Black Sea while weakening the German forces. So the Australian and New Zealand armies, newly formed and training in Egypt, came in to reinforce the British. They landed on a cove near Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. This wasn’t the simple success envisioned, though, and the soldiers were stuck in a tragic torture for months. To make a long story short, it was finally in January 1916 that the remaining Allied fighters were able to be removed to safety. Thousands lost their lives.

Graveyard after graveyard, memorials and tributes march across the land as an emotional contrast to the bright scenery. Lest We Forget feeling even more poignant here, where if it were not for the carefully tended markers the landscape would feel cheery under the bright Mediterranean sunshine.

Hushed and reflective, our group read the names of the soldiers. The epitaphs engraved spoke of bravery, of love, faith, honour, and family; this mixture of pride and devastation did me in and I was thankful for my dark sunglasses to hide my liquid eyes.

At the crest of the hill stands a memorial complex for the Turkish army, who also sustained significant loss of life despite ultimately claiming victory in the months-long battle. On the way up there’s a statue of a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded British soldier to safety. It shows simple human kindness and the respect soldiers had for each other even across the battlefield, though I suspect some might also see it as a subtle testament to the locals’ mastery.

The Turks are very proud of the outcome, and while they acknowledge the horror of that time, their course of history was improved by the Battle of Gallipoli because this is what developed Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as a revered leader. Atatürk ultimately brought reform and independence to Turkey, and was the country’s first president.

Paying respects

While at this memorial, I walked through the recreation of the trenches. Whether from some lingering sense in the air or from Hollywood, I could feel the young soldiers as they walked those same footsteps. Again as always when I’m in locations such as this I am so grateful for the peace I’ve grown up with.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore Rest In Peace. There is no difference to us between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

– Atatürk, 1934

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!