Mostar: where it’s quite normal to see someone jumping off a bridge!

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the city of Mostar – all I knew about it was of the trouble in the early ’90s, but it turned out to be one of my favourite places of my tour of Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian Coast.

I joined a guided tour to find out a bit more about the city. Situated on a deep valley of the Neretva River in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I learnt that Mostar was named after the bridge keepers who used to watch the bridge – the ‘Mostari’ – and it is for the large stone structure of the Old Bridge, the Stari Most that the city is well known. It’s hard to believe that just 20 years ago, 90% of the city was destroyed – the Stari Most itself became a symbol of the city in the Croatia-Bosnia conflict in the early 1990s when it was destroyed, but it has since been rebuilt and now represents a symbol of unity.

The Stari Most today represents a symbol of unity
The Stari Most today represents a symbol of unity

The first thing I noticed as we followed our guide through the market stalls of the cobbled streets was the wonderful smell of food… that mouth-watering, smoky aroma that really gets the taste buds going. The streets of the bazaar were buzzing with chatter and shoppers browsing the colourful market stalls – it was such a great atmosphere as we followed our guide past the small crooked bridge, Kriva Cuprija – five times smaller than the Stari Most – to the Turkish baths and the location of the tannery.
Colourful streets of the bazaar
Colourful streets of the bazaar

As we approached the Stari Most itself, a crowd was gathering. There, standing on top of the bridge was a young man who had just stripped down to his Speedos, pouring bottles of cold water over himself. The water wasn’t just to cool him down in the 39-degree heat of the day: this was in preparation for his dive. From the 70-foot high bridge, individuals plunge into the 20-foot deep, ice cold water of the Neretva River below each day – a tradition which began centuries ago. There’s a proper diving technique used by the Mostar divers which involves jumping feet first with arms outstretched and knees bent. Another guy collected money in an overturned hat from the crowd. As the mass of people began to cheer, the man closed his eyes, paused for a minute, took a deep breath and leapt out into the air, his legs tucked up behind him and his arms stretched sideways. In a couple of seconds, he hit the vibrant green water, to the roar of the people above, and gave us a wave.
The crowd watched as the diver jumped from the bridge
The crowd watched as the diver jumped from the bridge

As the crowd dispersed, we followed our guide over the smooth, slippery stones of Stari Most, over to the east side of the bridge. Once on the other side we passed through the Old Bazar, the Kujundziluk. Mostar has a distinctive Turkish feel to it, with its minarets and sounds of the call to prayer filling the air five times a day. Walking along, soaking up the buzzing atmosphere of this delightful street we were surrounded by interesting stalls of decorated plates, traditional Mostar reed pipe flutes, woven shepherd’s bags, embroidered tablecloths, wonderful copper works, handmade jewellery, colourful paintings, and bright, traditional shoes with pompoms – it really is a shopper’s heaven. Further along, we passed grey, stone buildings which still bear the scars of the heavy bombing of the early ’90s.
Stalls of the bazaar
Stalls of the bazaar

Reed pipe flutes
Reed pipe flutes

Our next stop was the Turkish House – Biscevic’s House – a beautiful, old Ottoman-style building and a real gem. In the courtyard, surrounded by high walls (to protect the females of the house from any prying eyes) was the ‘fountain of life’. The 12 holes in the top of the metal fountain represent the 12 months, four metal jugs below represent the four seasons and the three stone globes surrounding the fountain at the bottom represent birth (the stone facing the house), life (the stone facing Mecca) and death (the stone which faces the exit of the house). We slipped off our shoes and entered the well-preserved, 16th century building where our guide told us some wonderful stories about the way of life here, which also involved me modelling the traditional clothes worn by the house’s tenants – a pair of ‘one-size-fits-all’ bright red, silk harem pants made from 6 metres of fabric (the ankles of which our guide pulled up around my knees), a short-sleeved, patterned shirt and a white scarf for my head – much to the amusement of the group!
Biscevic’s House (unfortunatley there is no photo of me in local dress!)
Biscevic’s House (unfortunatley there is no photo of me in local dress!)

Leaving Biscevic’s House, I used my free time to explore the places we’d already passed a bit more. It was wonderful strolling along Coppersmith’s Street, through all the different stalls selling colourful scarves and shoes, lots of handmade jewellery, embroidered hats and cushions, hammered copper decorations and little decorated metal pots which were too hot to touch in the heat of the day’s sun. Despite so many stalls fighting for business, there was no pressure to buy or even to look, but it was hard not to do either! “I have more boxes inside that aren’t so hot” said a young girl, as she flashed me a friendly smile.
A shopper's paradise
A shopper’s paradise

Heading back towards the Stari Most, originally built by the Turkish architect, Hairuddin, I could see the Halebinovka and Tara towers – the watch towers which stand at each end of the Old Bridge – being lit by the afternoon sun. The original bridge, completed in 1566 after nine years of construction, was rebuilt in 1997. Stones from the destruction of the bridge in the early ’90s were pulled from the Neretva River below to be used in the bridge’s reconstruction. Unfortunately, they were too damaged by grenades, shrapnel and bullets to be made use of, so stones were brought in from the same quarry used by Hairuddin for the original bridge. In 2003-2004 the bridge was rebuilt, and today looks like it did before the war, standing almost 70 feet high, 97 feet long and almost 15 feet wide. Now, this whole area is protected by UNESCO.
Further along, returning over the bridge and along Onescukova, I encountered the source of the wonderful, smoky aroma – lots of inviting eateries offering Mostar’s mouth-watering traditional cuisine. Our guide, Tangra, had recommended that we try the local dish: cevapcici – grilled mince meat, like a type of kebab, formed into sausages. It’s actually pronounced ‘chewapchiechie’, but Tangra told us “just ask for chichichichi – they’ll know what you mean”! In no time at all, the lively waitress – singing as she went and wearing brightly-coloured harem pants, a white blouse and a black, embroidered waistcoat – served me my ‘chichichichi’… the 8 ‘sausages’ came with flat bread, chopped, raw onions and ‘ajvar’, a spicy relish made of peppers, aubergine and chili pepper – very tasty and definitely well recommended!
In no time at all, my short trip to Mostar had come to an end, but it had really left its mark as one of my favourite places of the trip.
Have you been to Mostar? Share your stories with us here.
 
 
 

Time for a short break?

If you’re craving your next holiday but short of time, on a budget or you just fancy a change of scene for a few days, a short break is the answer.

Not only will you come back feeling better, you’ll feel as if you’ve been away longer than you have. When we’re away from our daily lives, we become much more aware of our surroundings, and, as a result, come home with many more memories than the same period spent at home. Research has also shown that holidays are great for our mood, reducing our stress levels, increasing our energy levels and generally making us feel better. And these benefits can continue after we return. So holidays are good news all round!

Seizing the day (or four)

Seizing the opportunity to travel whenever I can (and since I’m ‘otherwise engaged’ from 9-5 each day), I decided to make the most of the four-day Easter weekend. People travel for all different reasons, and for me, this short break would mean doing something different than if I was at home. I wanted to visit somewhere I’d never been before… so where would I go?
Just a couple of hours’ drive from Calais is the charming town of Honfleur. I didn’t really know to much about the place, but it always looked really pretty in the photos I’d seen, so I decided to go and see it for myself.

Strolling along the pretty streets of Honfleur
Strolling along the pretty streets of Honfleur

A place in history

Walking along the narrow, cobbled streets, I made my way to Honfleur’s port, known locally as Vieux Bassin in the heart of the town. The port is bordered on three sides by large, stone houses around one side (Quai Sainte Etienne) and tall, narrow buildings on the other (Quai Sainte Catherine). It had been ‘the coldest March for 50 years’ in England and France wasn’t much warmer, but the sky was blue and the sun was shining, so the temperature didn’t seem to matter.
At the port’s entrance is the Lieutenancy building (la Lieutenance). This old, stone building was used as residence by the king’s lieutenant, the governor of Honfleur, until the French Revolution and it’s also what remains of a little fortified castle which formed part of the town’s original, 11th-century ramparts.

The Lieutenancy building sits at the entrance to Honfleur's old port.
The Lieutenancy building – to the right of the photograph – sits at the entrance to Honfleur’s old port.

This town is famous for inspiring the work of many artists, including Monet, Courbet, Boudin and Sisley on account of its ever-changing light, and walking around the streets there are galleries and artists’ studios everywhere.
Many years ago, Honfleur’s shipyards were among some of the best in France, and you can see the skills of the local shipbuilders inside the town’s most famous building – the Church of Sainte Catherine – the ceiling of which resembles the hull of an overturned ship. Today, this building is the oldest and largest wooden church in France. The square in which the church stands (just a short walk from La Lieutenance) was bustling on the day that I was there, with a large, lively market selling local produce: a huge range of really strong-smelling cheese, meat, seafood, fruit and vegetables, plus ciders and Calvados – the apple brandy native to this area.
Church of Sainte Catherine, the the oldest and largest wooden church in France.
Church of Sainte Catherine, the the oldest and largest wooden church in France.

The smell of the cheese on the market stalls wafted around the streets.
The smell of the cheese on the market stalls wafted around the streets.

Calvados – the apple brandy native to this area.
Calvados – the apple brandy native to this area.

In one of the little shops, the old man in there handed me a couple of samples of Calvados to try – one which said 10 ans on the bottle – ten years old – and another one which was ’12 ans’. He showed me how I should swirl the drink around to coat the glass before sipping it (although before he got to that part I’d already gulped it all down, to his cry of “sacrilèdge!”). It was very nice, and very warming on such a cold day!
Continuing my stroll around the historic old port, along Quai Sainte Etienne was a small church – Church of Sainte Etienne – Honfleur’s oldest church and today, the Maritime Museum. The small building houses an important collection of engravings, carvings, various maritime memorabilia and model ships, all providing an insight into Honfleur’s sea-faring past.
The Church of Sainte Etienne (in the centre of the picture) is Honfleur’s oldest church and today, the Maritime Museum.
The Church of Sainte Etienne (in the centre of the photograph) is Honfleur’s oldest church and today, the Maritime Museum.

A sample of Calvados, a ‘crispy mister’ and a French lesson, all in one visit

Later, sitting enjoying the spring sunshine, I noticed how narrow and tall the buildings opposite, along  Quai Sainte Catherine, really are. Some of them can’t be more than 8 or 9 feet wide, and, not only do they appear squeezed together, they’re also different heights and widths, some standing further out than others, and with the window levels changing from building to building. Apparently, not only are they different in size and shape, they also have two ground floors: one that opens out onto the quay and another, half-way up, which opens onto the street behind. And, even more peculiarly, because of the structure of the houses, each house is apparently privately-owned by two different householders.

The narrow and tall buildings along Quai Sainte Catherine.
The narrow and tall buildings along Quai Sainte Catherine.

Down on street level, the buildings’ colourful canopies – orange, red, yellow, pink – were flapping in the breeze and below them, the cane chairs and small tables were full of people enjoying the views as others strolled along the quayside.
Le Petit D̩jeuner Рbreakfast was cr̻pes with Nutella!
Le Petit D̩jeuner Рbreakfast was cr̻pes with Nutella!

As I sat in a little café along Quai Sainte Etienne, all around me people were enjoying an aperitif or tucking into crêpes or gaufres (waffles), drizzled with Nutella or strawberries and piled high with whipped cream.
For me also, it was time, to sample some more French cuisine. I ordered the very-French Croque Monsieur (which translated simply means ‘crispy mister’). It may just be a cheese and ham toasted sandwich, but it was délicieux! I even got a brief French lesson thrown in – the waiter telling me “Non, non – it’s not boNjour… you say ‘bo(n)’… without pronouncing the ’n’… you have to get the accent right!”
Have you been to Honfleur? Share you stories with us.
Or you could visit Honfleur on Leger’s Rouen and the Seaside Towns of Normandy short break.
There are lots more short breaks to choose from… click here to find out more.

Romantic Germany at its best

When putting together our holidays we work closely with tourist boards from various countries to make sure we show our guests the very best of what the area has to offer. We recently spoke to Charlotte Jakobsen from the Rhineland-Palatinate tourist board to find out what she recommends to visitors of the area.

What can visitors expect to see when they visit the Rhineland-Palatinate?

The Rhineland-Palatinate is an area where vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see and almost 500 fairytale castles, palaces and ruins decorate the river landscapes around the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Visitors will also see plenty of charming little towns with half-timbered houses here, plus a wide range of cultural points of interest and a wonderful mild climate – all hallmarks of the Rhineland-Palatinate.
The Upper Middle Rhine Valley is known for its high concentration of castles and a central feature of this area is the mythical Loreley Valley near St. Goarshausen, where the song of a beautiful young maiden is said to have lured seamen to perdition.
 
Burg Katz

There are also plenty of vineyards along the valley. There must be plenty of wine produced here?

Viticulture – the study of grape cultivation – was brought to Rhineland-Palatinate by the Romans over 2,000 years ago and has been thriving here ever since. The region produces around 70 percent of all German wine and is a real paradise for wine lovers and connoisseurs, with the six wine regions of Moselle, Rhine, Ahr, Nahe, Palatinate and Rheinhessen, which includes the only German ‘Great Wine Capital’, Mainz.
The Palatinate region also boasts the biggest wine festival and even the biggest wine barrel in the world, located in the city of Bad Dürkheim. The outstanding wine-growing areas continue to impress visitors with their award-winning wines and a special experience for any fan of wine is to visit the vineyards and learn about the traditions and history of German wine from the one person who really knows – the winemaker himself.
Rheinsteig Herbstfotoshooting 2008 - Kaub - Weinbergslage

What other activities would you recommend to anyone visiting the area?

The natural beauty of Rhineland-Palatinate provides the perfect setting for a number of outdoor activities like hiking and biking. Few other German regions offer such a variety of terrains combined with certified, well-marked, high-quality walking trails and cycling routes, as well as accommodation designed to suit the active holidaymakers’ needs.
 
Moselschleife
 
Rhineland-Palatinate is a region full of historical highlights while at the same time remaining a modern and active region so there’s something here for everyone.
We look forward to you visiting us soon.
Charlotte Jakobsen
Rhineland-Palatinate Tourist Board
Rhineland UK logo
 
 
 

Why is Rocamadour so popular?

I’d heard of Rocamadour before and seen many photos. I knew it as the French village that sits on the top of a steep cliff above the River Alzou, but I had no idea what the place would be like until I visited it as part of Leger’s Highlights of Provence and the Dordogne tour.

It was about 10 o’clock when we finished dinner on our first night there and the village was really quiet. From what I could see, there was just one main street through Rocamadour, so I decided to go for a little stroll.
The cobbled walkway looked so lovely, lit up with soft yellow lighting from the hotels and buildings lining the street, so I decided to take a few photographs. There were very few people around but I felt quite safe walking along on my own.

An evening stroll down Rocamadours main street.
An evening stroll down Rocamadours main street.

Dancing in the street

As I set up my tripod, a small group of people appeared, walking towards me from the other side of the archway I was about to photograph. The guy in the threesome was dancing about and leaping into my shot, and as they got closer they asked what I was doing.
Before they got too carried away in their super-fast French chatter, I reached into the depths of my memory for my school-days French and asked “Parlez-vous Anglais?” Luckily for me, they continued in English, asking what I was doing: Why was I in Rocamadour? Why was I taking photos? Where was I going? When I explained that I was with a coach tour, the guy explained that he needed to get to Paris tomorrow and asked me if there was any room on our coach! I explained how, unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to give him a lift, before wishing them bonne nuit and bon voyage!
Before long, another couple appeared from the shadows of the archway. Again, the guy started dancing in front of the camera (what was it with guys and cameras?) and asked me what I was doing.
I had a chat with the couple – an English guy and his French girlfriend who were here visiting her family – before deciding to put my camera away for the night and headed back to my hotel at the end of the street. Who would’ve thought that there would be so many friendly people about at that time of night in the quiet streets of Rocamadour?

Bonjour Rocamadour

In the daylight I got to see the true charm of Rocamadour. I thought it had looked wonderful at night time, but in the day, the village really came to life. It was late April when I visited, so no doubt not as busy as it would be in the height of the summer, but the place had a lovely buzz about it. Gone were the pastel-coloured buildings with brightly-painted shutters that had been a familiar sight in other places on my trip, now replaced by rustic, biscuit-toned stone shops, restaurants, houses and hotels along the cobbled street.

Rocamadour's main street.
Rocamadour’s main street.

As I walked down the pedestrianised main street, the smell of garlic floated through the air and I could hear the bells of the little train which runs up and down the street, carrying visitors through the lovely place. The lane was lined with wonderful, little shops selling handmade jewellery, arts and crafts, soaps, pastries, chocolate, foie gras (quite popular in this area) and wine, with two or three stone archways – the main gateways being the Porte du Figuier (right next to our hotel) and the Porte Salmon.
Le Petit Train de Rocamadour.
Le Petit Train de Rocamadour.

Shopping in Rocamadour.
Shopping in Rocamadour.
Shopping in Rocamadour.
Further down the street, stone pots displaying colourful flowers lined the walkway and there was a sweet smell, which I later discovered was the small, white flower, Stephanotis, which I’d seen in planters outside a couple of the restaurants. The shop owners and locals were very friendly and welcoming. In one shop, the owner asked me to speak to her in English for a while so that she could practice her language skills!
Flower pots lined the street.

A place of history

During my trip, I learnt that the Rocamadour is known for its historical monuments and the village attracts pilgrims from many countries each year. There are many stories surrounding the origin of the name of the village and a lot of history about the chapels, abbeys and churches there. I could see a large, stone tower high above the main street, and so decided to walk up the stone steps (apparently, climbed by pilgrims on their knees even today) for a closer look. It was quite a climb but there were some excellent views along the way. Along Rocamadour’s main street I’d passed a sign for the ‘Ascenseur de Rocamadour’, the lift which would’ve taken me to the top, but I thought I’d get better views by walking. I was right.

Sanctuaire Notre Dame de Rocamadour.
Sanctuaire Notre Dame de Rocamadour.

Once through the buildings and courtyards of the château and the chapels, I entered a shady path, zig-zagging its way through the trees, known as the ‘Stations of the Cross’. The path was quite steep up to the château at the top, and at each turn there was a frieze depicting a Station of the Cross.
The zig-zagging path of Stations of the Cross.
The zig-zagging path of Stations of the Cross.

The 8th Station of the Cross.
The 8th Station of the Cross.

The best view in the village

At the top of the hill I entered the château (you need two 1 Euro coins to get through the turnstile) and walked up the stone steps for some magnificent views over the village. The battlements of the château were really narrow and jutted out over a drop of a few hundred feet – not too good if you don’t like heights! Despite my legs feeling like jelly, it was from there that I got a real sense of the size and layout of the village. I could see our hotel and the coach park amongst the two rows of terracotta rooftops and excellent views over the Alzou Valley and of the churches and village below. The climb had definitely been worth it.

Excellent views over Rocamadour.
Excellent views over Rocamadour.

Au Revoir, Rocamadour

The sun was shining in Rocamadour on the morning our party left, lighting up the hillside and the creamy stone of the churches. I popped into the hotel’s restaurant to grab a croissant and jus d’orange before heading back into the street which was very quiet for 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning. Three or four small cats stretched out on the street enjoying the morning sunshine as I exchanged a few cheery bonjours with the handful of shop owners opening their shutters.
Main street in Rocamadour.
Whether it’s for its religious connections, historical significance, charming architecture or just the impressive views, it’s not hard to see why Rocamadour is France’s second most visited site after the impressive Mont St. Michel in Normandy. For me, it was just a lovely place to visit, a great little rustic French village where you can pass a few leisurely hours amongst some fantastic scenery and friendly locals.

Au Revoir, Rocamadour.
Au Revoir, Rocamadour.

But now it was time for me to head out on the winding streets above the lovely village of Rocamadour once more, for the next leg of my Highlights of Provence and the Dordogne tour.
Have you been to Rocamadour? Share your stories with us in the comments below.

Why do people like to travel?

Everyone has their own reason for getting away – I have a full list of them – but whatever our reason for travelling in the first place, once we’re away our brain seems to take on those sponge-like qualities we had as a child.

We become more alert to things happening around us, to sights, sounds and smells we experience, which is why it’s common to come back from our travels with so many more memories than we’d have from the same period of time back home.

To experience world cultures…

Some people travel specifically to discover new cultures – they want to see the difference between their own culture and that of the people in the country they’re visiting. It’s intriguing to see the way other people behave in other parts of the world – just watching them go about their daily business can be a real eye-opener. It’s so easy to take things for granted in our everyday lives, and immersing ourselves in the culture of foreign parts can be quite fascinating.
 

Experience different cultures.
Experience different cultures.

To do something different…

Placing ourselves ‘in the thick of it’ really helps us develop a different perspective on life, opening our eyes, ears, mind – and our taste buds – to all the amazing things that are out there. Speak a different language – or at least try; eat a dish you’ve never tried before; take a ride in a horse and carriage; go to the ballet; take in a classical music concert; climb aboard a boat… there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be experienced.
 

Eat something different: Cevapcici – the local dish I tried in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Eat something different: Cevapcici – the local dish I tried in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

 

Out of curiosity…

We’ve all read about places, seen them on TV, or heard others talk about them, but what’s it really like to be there? What are the people like? Are the buildings really as big as they look on TV? Does scenery really take your breath away? So why not experience these places for yourself – find out more about them, explore them further. Nothing will satisfy your curiosity quite as much as being there, finding all the answers for yourself.
 

It's true what they say: standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon really DID take my breath away.
It’s true what they say: standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon really DID take my breath away.

 

For fun, excitement and adventure…

People can sometimes be a bit wary of the unknown – things that are different to back home; afraid of change. But so much excitement and adventure can be achieved, just by doing something a bit different to what you’d normally do.
 

To escape every day life…

It’s not unusual to become a bit bored of every day life. The daily routine: bills to pay; shopping to do; a big project at work; meals to cook; clothes to wash; gardens to tend to… there’s no wonder so many people look forward to some ‘time out’ each year. It’s a time to switch off from everything back home; to be free from responsibility; to leave our worries behind. We all know that all those things will still be there when we get back, but for that short period of time, they don’t exist. It does us good to get away from everything for a while, and we tend to come back feeling much fresher and more positive (for a while, at least!).
 

Escape the daily routine!
Escape the daily routine!

 

To see the sights…

Those famous landmarks you’ve heard about… Rome’s Colosseum; the Great Wall of China; the Eiffel Tower; natural wonders such as the Midnight Sun in the Arctic Circle; centuries-old glaciers and thundering waterfalls; or amazing architectural feats like Florence’s Duomo; Pisa’s leaning tower and the vast Alhambra Palace… they’re on many people’s ‘tick list’ of places to visit in the world.
 

Florence: somewhere I'd always wanted to go.
Florence: somewhere I’d always wanted to go.

 

To meet new people…

On the trips I’ve been on I’ve met some wonderful and interesting people: travelling companions and people from the areas I’ve visited. People from different places sometimes act differently, have different beliefs and have many different stories to share. I love listening to people about their travels and places they want to go to: people who have many years of holidays behind them and others who are just starting to discover the world. And just as we are all individual, we all have different things we want to get from our precious time away.
 
What’s your reason for getting away? What type of holidays do you like? Share your holiday stories with us.