Destinations / JOURNEY
Traveling overland, we’ve been able to spend days and nights
exploring the old walled city of Kotor and taking day trips like this
one, which finishes with a picnic lunch on the stone-walled quay in the
bougainvillea-draped village of Perast.
From our room just inside the city’s ancient fortified walls, we’re
awakened by bells ringing out from Kotor’s many churches, including
the Cathedral of St. Tryphon and the orthodox churches of St. Luke
and St. Nicholas.
We have time to spend a morning wandering the waterfront stalls of the
Saturday farmers’ market and to climb the 1,350 steep, crumbling stone
steps that switchback up the mountain to the Castle of San Giovanni, also
known as the Fortress of St. John. We stop halfway up to visit the Chapel
of Our Lady of Remedy, built in 1518 by grateful survivors of the plague,
clamber down the backside of the mountain to the abandoned chapel of St.
George, and stay to watch the sunset over the bay far below.
Heavily fortified in the early Middle Ages, Kotor still feels utterly
medieval; it’s easy to imagine knights riding across the moat and jousting in the main square. But the Kotor you see today also looks and feels
Venetian, having been part of that empire for more than 350 years, from
1420 to 1797, during which many of the current buildings were constructed or embellished.
The Mediterranean influence is deliciously evident in Kotor’s cuisine;
choosing among the many cozy restaurants with their lamp-lit outdoor
tables, we sample black risotto made from squid ink; octopus salad; and
buzara, a deep bowl of shellfish and prawns cooked in white wine.
Other local specialties are influenced by the traditions of neighboring
Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, as Kotor spent time under the rule of each.
Market stalls overflow with the small, skinless cevapi sausages, soft
cheeses in olive oil, and pastries such as burek, made from filo dough
filled with spinach and cheese or ground meat. Not to be missed is riblja
corba, a rich fish soup typically made from sea bass or mullet enhanced
with potatoes, carrots and sometimes tomatoes.
Mostar: More than a Bridge
To our taste, though, nothing rivals the meals we eat in the Bosnian city
of Mostar, which spent 500 years under Ottoman rule and still shows a
great deal of Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern influence. The first thing
we do upon arrival is visit Cafe de Alma, where owner Jasmin serves up a
lesson on the history and ritual of Bosnian aka Turkish coffee, which we
drink while relaxing on her sunny, rainbow-hued patio.
We’ve driven all morning through the rolling, vineyard-covered hills
and valleys of southern Herzegovina, so we’re hungry and we head to
Sadrvan, where waiters in traditional dress recommend we start with
Mostarski Sahan, a sort of sampler platter featuring sogan-dolma, roasted
onions stuffed with minced meat; japrak, a more traditional grape leaf
dolma; and buttery rich potato and lamb stew topped with sour cream.
But we’re really just waiting for the crowds to thin so we can have
Stari Most, the world-famous Ottoman bridge, to ourselves. The pet proj-
ect of Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent, Stari Most is a true
architectural wonder, seeming to defy gravity as its single span of white
limestone arches high over the Neretva River. Completed in 1566 after
10 nail-biting years of construction, it was a symbol of Muslim-Christian
peace until it was bombed seemingly beyond repair in the bitter wars for
Balkan independence in the early 1990s. Painstakingly rebuilt block by
block, it reopened in 2004 and has become a symbol of the slow, painful
reconciliation process that’s still ongoing.
Mostar enchants us, from the calls to prayer echoing from its mosques
to the Turkish bazaar of colorful crafts and market stalls to the still
war-torn neighborhoods displaying bold murals of nationalist pride. Of
course, we also love the cake shops and bakeries, where shelves glow with
honey-soaked pastries, four-layer cream-filled cakes and the elaborate
puddings that were favorites of the Ottoman sultans.
Dubrovnik: The Fairy-Tale City
We finish — as we started — in Dubrovnik, today among the most popular
and crowded destinations in central and southeastern Europe thanks
to its role standing in for King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. But here’s
what most people don’t know: visiting Dubrovnik is a completely different
experience for those who stay within or just outside the old city walls.
From its towering battlements to the smooth white paving stones that
gleam underfoot, Dubrovnik feels like the setting of a chivalric legend, and
having it all to yourself at night and in the early mornings lets you sense the
magic the most. Dubrovnik is a dream for those who love to walk, and we do,
climbing up to Fort Lovrijenak on its high rocky perch and scaling Srd Hill
to visit Napoleonic Fort Imperial, which protected the city through many
wars, including the battle for Croatian independence.
And we climb up one of the towers to walk the entire 1.2-mile circuit of
the old city walls, considered one of the greatest fortifications of the Middle
Ages, staying to watch the sunset touch the gleaming stones with gold.
The azure-blue Dalmatian coast is another draw here, and we spend
t wo of our days visiting islands by ferry. Just an hour’s ride away, Lokrum’s
attractions include a Benedictine monastery-turned-palace surrounded by
courtyards and a botanical garden. The grounds have become a sanctuary
for escaped peacocks and fluffy rabbits happy to nibble from your hand.
Many people also come to the island to swim in its secluded coves, dive off
the craggy rocks or float in the iridescent blue-green “dead sea” salt water
lake connected to the ocean by underground caves.
Lopud, one of a group of islands called Elafiti, is as popular for its white
sand beach as it is for the Franciscan monastery that looms dramatically
over the port. The ferry rides themselves are a highlight, offering endless
photo opps of Dubrovnik’s famed seawalls and the islands’ craggy coastlines and peaceful harbors.
On our second-to-last day in Dubrovnik, the city’s many plazas and parks
suddenly bloom with flower stalls, each vying to outdo the others with massive arrangements of white and yellow chrysanthemums, daisies and roses
of all hues. Checking the calendar, we realize that tomorrow is All Saints Day,
to be followed by All Souls Day, when Central European Christians honor
deceased family members by cleaning and decorating their graves.
Before heading for the airport, we wake early to watch families proceeding into the beautiful Cemetery of Boninovo and marvel at the care
and beauty lavished on each mausoleum. Noticing the clusters of red glass
lanterns, we ask their significance and an elderly woman looks surprised
at our ignorance. “They light the way into heaven,” she says. It seems a
fitting endnote for a trip that’s shown us the ways in which Balkan traditions remain strong despite hundreds of years of conquest, upheaval and
death by land and sea. m