Keeping the faith in Mostar

The further we travel, the more apparent it becomes that the one thing that makes any place special is not its grand buildings, historical sights, natural beauty or great food. It’s the people we meet. And we’ve had the pleasure of spending time with some very awesome people throughout this trip. We’ve had tea with Habishah and her nomad family in Morocco, we’ve made paella with Jose and Reitxel in Toledo, and we’ve celebrated our friend Josil’s birthday party together with Davide and his family in Verona, to name a few. We’ve also hung out with many other like-minded travellers.

Arriving in Mostar, Bosnia after a four hour bus ride from Dubrovnik, we weren’t quite sure what to expect (and were a little bit anxious, no doubt), but we certainly did not expect what was coming. Mostar now sits on the top spot of our favourite travel destinations. We were initially supposed to stay for two nights, but liked it so much we stayed for three, and could have easily stayed for a week or longer, if time had permitted.

This is mostly because in Mostar, we had the honour of meeting Majda (pronounced Mai-da) and Bata. Majda runs Hostel Majda’s – the friendliest, warmest hostel that we’ve ever stayed at. She makes friends with all her guests, always makes sure everyone is alright, and even finds the time to whip up something special in the kitchen everyday for everyone, on the house.

Travelers leave behind all sorts of artwork and memorabilia at Majda’s. See if you can spot our contribution – one of the Orang Asli pandanus bookmarks we had brought along on the trip

Majda’s brother, the SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy) Bata, runs an offbeat 12-hour tour of Mostar’s surrounds catered specially for backpackers (only those staying at Majda’s). Bata’s tour is terrible because it has spoilt all future tours for us. We cannot imagine any other tour coming close to being as truthful, crazy and side-splittingly funny (and a little scary) as his. We won’t give away much more details of where we went and what happened, as his jealous competitors might stumble upon this blog, but we’ll just leave you a little bit of advice – come to Mostar, stay at Majda’s and go on Bata’s tour!

Bata doing his thing

Kravice Waterfall

Crazy Dylan went swimming in the 12-degree Celsius water

Bosnians take their coffee very seriously. Correct way of drinking Bosnian coffee: Dip a bit of the sugar cube in the coffee, then take a small nibble and slurp the coffee

Sara’s favourite dessert, Hurmastica (syrup-soaked sponge fingers)

The Mostar countryside

Pocitelj, an Ottoman-era fortress village in the Mostar countryside

A sufi centre of learning in the village of Blagaj, which dates back to the 15th century. This important site for Muslims was miraculously spared from shelling during the war. The limestone caves behind it are an important archeological site where neolithic artefacts have been uncovered.

The same warmth and hospitality exuded by Majda and Bata were also evident in the other Bosnians we come across in Mostar – the shopkeepers, grandmothers, gentlemen hanging out in coffee houses, hairdressers, children, cats, etc.

Haircut time

Having said this, we are only all too aware that Mostar is still a city divided (both physically and emotionally) along ethnic and religious lines, and that efforts to reconcile these divisions are still very much a work in progress. The physical scars of the 1992-95 war remain in plain sight, and are especially apparent in the dozens of bullet riddled, war torn buildings scattered around Mostar. But we cannot even begin to imagine the emotional scars the people of Mostar must bear and live with each and every day.

One of dozens of war torn buildings left behind in Mostar

This was once a bank and the tallest building in Mostar. The Croat army used it as a sniper post. It’s now abandoned and has become somewhat of a magnet for curious backpackers.

View of East Mostar from the fourth floor of the old bank building. Spent bullet shells can still be found amongst the rubble

View of the more affluent West Mostar from the staircase of the old bank

However, we are awed at the courage and determination of the people of Mostar to rebuild their lives and their town, especially under the very difficult prevailing circumstances. One story in particular stands out – that of a bridge that is said to have been akin to the soul of the people of Mostar. The Stari Most (Old Bridge), which had connected people living on both sides of the Neretva River that flows through Mostar, had been there for as long as anyone could remember. Mostar itself was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded Stari Most.

Stari Most was 427 years old when it was shelled to smithereens by the Bosnian Croat army in the siege of 1993. As this pedestrian bridge was of little strategic importance, its destruction has been termed as an act of “killing memory”, in which evidence of a shared cultural heritage and peaceful co-existence was deliberately destroyed.

The bridge was reconstructed in 2001, with help from the international community. The new bridge, which is called Stari Grad, was made to be as similar as possible to the original, using the same materials and technology. It is now the new heart of Mostar, a focal point for its growing tourism industry, and a symbol of hope of a peaceful shared future.

Stari Grad

The bridge is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Sign in the old town of east Mostar: Don’t forget

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Tricked and treat in Dubrovnik

We had heard and read much about Dubrovnik before we finally arrived. Dubbed the “Pearl of the Adriatic” Dubrovnik lays claim as one of the most beautiful cities in the whole of the Mediterranean. Although it’s also the most expensive city in Croatia, hordes of tourists descend on the city each year, by bus, car, plane, and gigantic cruise ships.

We rented an apartment in Lapad, a relatively quiet suburb away from the tourist hordes and much cheaper than the old town. After a hearty home cooked breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast the following morning, we set out to do the obligatory walk along Dubrovnik’s number one tourist attraction – the 2km long city walls surrounding the old town. Aside from the tourist congestion along various parts of the wall, it was quite a pleasant walk, and offered good views of the old town, marina, and the sea. However, we felt that the views of Adriatic coast from the bus rides between Trieste, Split and Dubrovnik were much more spectacular. Too bad we couldn’t take any photos from the moving buses.

View from the city walls

The main street

A fort just outside the city walls

After our brief sojourn along the walls, we wandered aimlessly through the streets of the old town. It wasn’t long before we spotted a cat leaning against the door of a museum. The cat, which appeared to be tired, disheveled and dirty, had one paw lifted off the floor as if he was injured.

The poor thing

After looking at him for a while, we entered the museum, hoping that he would be strong enough to lick whatever wound he incurred. We browsed through the exhibits for a few minutes, until we realised that there was actually an entrance fee and thereby proceeded to make a quick exit. As we laid low in the grocery shop nearby, we came across some cat food.

So we bought a packet for the little fellow, which he walloped in a matter a seconds.  Didn’t seem to have any injuries or whatsoever now. But he still looked famished, so we went back to buy another packet. He ate half of this before deciding that he was too full and needed some siesta in the sun. That was when we realised we were conned by a cat in the most expensive city in Crotia.


Siesta time

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For a Split second

After seven hours on a bus that stopped at almost every bus stop en route, we arrived in Split. We were staying a night here and when the rains and winds came, we could only wait it out.

Split is the second largest city in Croatia and the largest in the Dalmation region. It is also one of the oldest cities in the area, dating back to the sixth century BC. Split’s main attraction is Diocletion’s Palace, built by the Roman emperor Diocletion as his retirement home. It’s now one of Croatia’s many World Heritage sites.

Armed with a map provided by our hostel, we did a bit of sightseeing in Diocletian’s Palace (which is more of a town than a palace) the next morning before moving on to Dubrovnik.

Apparently the construction of the St. Domnius Cathedral and bell tower took three centuries to be completed

The main facade of Diocletian’s Palace faces the marina. Now lined with cafes and restaurants, it’s an ideal for people-watching

A stylish man and his trolley

A stroll in the old city

Statue of Gregorius of Nin, a bishop who fought to use Croatian language in church. See his polished toe – rubbing it will bring you good luck.

Space Invader detected in Split!

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Plitvice Lakes

If you are Malaysian and have an e-mail account, at some time of other you would probably have received a chain e-mail containing a number of photos of pretty waterfalls, which the e-mail claimed to be from a certain “Sungai Jagung” (Corn River) in the state of Kedah, northern Peninsular Malaysia.

We had to endure two days and two nights cooped up in our rooms in a guesthouse in the village of Grabovac in Croatia, watching re-runs of sitcoms, while waiting for the episode of bad weather to pass. But when the rain finally ceased on the third day, we were finally able to confirm that the e-mail was indeed a hoax. So, ladies and gentlemen, while there is no question that no such river by the name of “Sungai Jagung” exists in Kedah, the waterfalls shown in the e-mail are actually from Plitvice Lakes National Park.

The e-mail in question is still kept carefully in Dylan’s Inbox

Created in 1949, the Plitvice Lakes National Park is the oldest park in Croatia. It was also one of the first natural areas in the world to be listed as a World Heritage Site, having been inscribed in 1979 in recognition of its “outstanding natural beauty, and the undisturbed production of travertine (tufa) through chemical and biological action.” It is now a major tourist attraction, as well as an important refuge for plants and animals, including the European brown bear.

It’s a spectacular place, and also interesting from a geological perspective (Google it, we’re not going to get technical today). The lakes are generally divided into two groups: The Lower Lakes and upper Lakes. The Upper Lakes have smaller pools and cascades, with very pretty natural gardens. The Lower Lakes are more spectacular, with limestone gorges rising up around them. Visitors can choose from a number of routes that traverse across and around the 20-odd lakes in the park. The routes, which range from 2 to 6 hours, are very doable, and the park authorities provide bus and ferry services to get around the less scenic areas. We noticed that the majority of the visitors (on the day we were there) were senior citizens.

A waterfall in the Upper Lakes

Although a little bit narrow, the boardwalks are gorgeous and add to the beauty of the lakes

One of the larger waterfalls on the Upper Lakes

These pretty rheophytes grow everywhere in the park

Cascades near the start of the Lower Lakes

Quite a few trees were in bloom


Panoramic view of the Lower Lakes

The tallest waterfall in Croatia, at 78 metres. It’s named “Veliki Slap”

In 2000, Sara envisioned creating this exact boardwalk in Penang, Malaysia, when she was doing her degree in Housing, Building and Planning, without any knowledge of the Plitvice Lakes’ boardwalk.

Zoomed out of the above shot

This post is dedicated to Bob. May he rest in peace.

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Two months on the road

Today, we’ve been bus-hopping, train-switching, living out of our backpacks and sharing meals for exactly two months. We’ve had a lot of adventures, rain and coffee, met friendly travellers and made a few more wonderful friends. Tasted some amazing dishes and learned new recipes. We are tired, but excited. We are anxious, but confident. We miss Malaysia, but we love being out in the world.

Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

We thank our lucky stars that we’ve been able to do just that.

Photo courtesy of temporary cabutlari-an Josil Murray, taken in Italy.

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Zadar and the Marvelous Sea Organ

After a short train ride to Trieste followed by a longer bus ride along a very winding road, we were in Zadar, Croatia. We had reserved beds at a brand new establishment, Hostel Home in Zadar’s old town. Apart from the fact that it was almost impossible to locate, and that it was five flights of stairs up, the hostel was not too bad. We had the entire place to ourselves on the first night, as there were no other guests.

Zadar is sunny and breezy and green

Five flights of stairs is no laughing matter

The common kitchen became our own. It has brand new plates and everything

Zadar’s old town is a small area with a number of historical sights. As it was a rather hot day, we didn’t do much sightseeing, although we were pleased to find an old church built by and named after a saint whom we could identify with: St. Donat.

Church of St Donat, with relics of an old Roman forum in the foreground

The ceiling of the church of St Donat. Nice and round and holy

This caught our eye – could it be Randall Boggs (from Monster’s Inc.)?

Our favourite part of Zadar is much newer: a sea organ built in 2005. Designed by local architect Nicola Basic, the “organ” is made up of a series of pipes that produce hypnotic, out-of-this-world music when sea waves exert pressure on them. As the sounds produced depends on the tide and waves, the sea organ sounds different at different times of the day. Listen to our poor recording of the sea organ here.

The sea organ. Doubles up as steps

Our second favourite part of Zadar is also new: the “sun salutation” which was designed by the same architect.  Located next to the sea organ, the sun salutation is a large circle of multi-layered glass plates that collect energy during the day and produce a trippy light show at night that’s meant to simulate the solar system. The energy harnessed by this invention is also used to power the street lights on the entire harbourfront.

The sun salutation: an excellent place to do the moonwalk

Apart from the organ and the light thing, we found the entire sea side promenade of the old town quite pleasant, and took a stroll here whenever we could.

Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that Zadar has the most beautiful sunsets in the world. So they  they gave him his very own signboard

A very big swimming pool. Unlike Gurney drive, the waters off this promenade are crystal clear

Fishing is a popular hobby here, for both men and women

A children’s fishing competition (we think)

As we did not bring fishing rods, all we could do was lepak in the shade and read

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How to be romantic in Venice

Like everything else in Venice, the price of accommodation there is ridiculously expensive. So we opted to stay on dry land instead, at an affordable hostel in the sleepy suburb of Mestre, which is only a 15 minute bus ride away. After settling in and doing a round of laundry, we set off for a romantic evening stroll in Venice.

Having fun with laundry. Not knowing how to operate the soap powder vending machine, Dylan had to salvage leftover powder from all the washing machines using his bare hands

Venice isn’t as romantic as it’s made out to be, unless you find getting lost together with a million other tourists romantic. The town (city?) is made up of 117 islands, which are joined by 400 bridges that cross over 150 canals. The resulting maze means that everyone gets lost here.

Ferries take locals and tourists along the grand canal

Gondola rides start from 80 Euro….! So we had to be romantic without gondolas

Another one of the grand canal, the main waterway through the city

Romance aside, Venice is an amazing place with an amazing story:  Bunch of refugees fleeing from invading forces set up camp on small islands in coastal marshland – villages integrate to form a republic – republic becomes major commercial empire – empire declines – Napoleon gives it to the Austrians – Italy takes it back – tourist hordes move in [See Wikipedia for full story]

One of Venice’s main attractions – St Marco’s cathedral

Spot the Malaysian tourists outside of St Marco’s

Venice has tonnes of other pretty buildings

There are many different styles of architecture from the various periods.. Byzantine, Venetian Gothic, Renaissance, Oriental, Tatooine, etc.. gets a bit confusing

The other great thing about Venice is that it has a couple of GROM outlets. GROM is a gelati chain that sells decent ice creams and is also kind to forests (it’s FSC certified).

How to be romantic in Venice: Present your other half with two cones of GROM ice cream!

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In fair Verona (and Padua), where we lay our scene

We stayed with our friends Josil and Davide at Davide’s family home in Verona. Davide’s wonderful mother fed us non-stop and we were quite certain that we (well, Sara at least) gained back some of the weight that we had lost since Morocco. Davide’s mother even made pasta and gnocchi from scratch.

Homemade pasta + Italy = dream come true.

Pasta, from scratch

The finished product: salmon and cream pasta

Homemade gnocchi with tomatoe sauce and cheese. Sara ate 37 pieces. Dylan was full after 25

As Josil and Davide were scheduled to attend a wedding (not theirs) in Padua and a Spring Festival at the Colli Euganei hills on the outskirts of Padua, the Cabutlaris were taken along for the ride in Davide’s family camper van. As our only experience with campervans was through Mickey, Donald and Goofy, we were definitely excited to be in a real one. Unlike the Disney model, Davide’s camper sleeps four and is equipped with a stove, sink, portable dining table plus a little toilet.

Having tea, Sicilian cookies and toasted cashews in the camper van

We were in luck as we stumbled upon free food at the pesta in Padua while Davide and Josil were at the church ceremony. Stalls were handing out fabulous risotto, cheese, bread, olive oil with bread and more cheese – we couldn’t say no to these, we’re Malaysians!

The fair at Padua

Asparagus and cheese risotto… free samples!

The Spring Festival was a fundraising event for an NGO. We had lunch here for a good cause, and met some of Josil and Davide’s colleagues from university who were also fellow foresters and conservationists.

A new Malaysian-Italian rock band

Sugar high after lunch

A feast was prepared for Josil’s 29th birthday which we tumpang enjoyed. Thanks for your family’s hospitality and for being our personal tour guide, Davide (and Josil)!

Davide and the birthday girl

P/S: Besides pasta, pizza and Nutella, another fabulous Italian invention we enjoyed was stove-top espresso maker.  It’s a simple but brilliant invention that is not yet popular in Malaysia but an essential household item in Italy. As lovers of good coffee, we just had to get ourselves one. Friends and family, come around for a cuppa when we get back!

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Rainy Porto, sunny Milan

We said goodbye to our short-term family in Parada de Gonta and caught the bus to Porto. It was especially hard saying goodbye to Zero, Jet, Kitty, Womble and Lottie; we started missing them as soon as we left the Quinta.

Zero giving Dylan’s head one last lick and bite

Although it rained all throughout the one afternoon we were there, we did manage a quick look around the pretty and very hilly city of Porto. We strolled along the port, rode the funicular, shopped for souvenirs and checked out an old bookshop that was featured in one of the Harry Potter movies. We spent the night at the Rivoli Cinema Hostel, another one of Portugal’s excellent hostels (this one won 5th Best Hostel rated on Hostelworld). We would’ve loved to have stayed a few more nights, but Italy beckoned.

Unfortunately, no photography allowed inside. Squint hard and you might see the crazy staircase

Porto – we liked it. Thought it was a bit like Georgotown, Penang, but a bit hillier

Definitely recommend this hostel for those going to Porto. They have a good collection of Star Wars posters too

We were a bit confused for a second. Porto airport is almost exactly the same as KLIA, just a bit smaller

The next morning, after a two-hour Ryan Air flight and a lost tin of sardines (confiscated by airport security), we were in sunny Milan-Bergamo. The temperature was 25 degrees Celsius and the air smelled of pizza.

We had one and a half days in Milan before we moved on to Verona to meet our friends, Josil and Davide. We had managed to find a good deal for a hotel room in Milan on Although it’s not great, the hotel is located in a nice residential area just five Metro stops from the city centre.

There are a lot of Asians in Milan – the Indonesian and Malaysian tourists, as well as the Filipino, Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese immigrants. About one out of three souvenir shops / fruit stalls / mini markets would be manned by smiling Bangladeshis. Although there is something very strange about having a Bangladeshi trying to speak to you in Italian, it amazed us that so many of these guys manage to fare well in distant lands.

Milan is where fashion meets religion. Its beating heart is the Duomo, an imposing cathedral surrounded by designer outlets housed in beautiful old buildings. From Prada to Alexander McQueen, H&M to Gap, Burger King to McDonalds, you can spend hours here just browsing.

The Duomo and metro exit

A shopper’s cathedral

Milan – where religion meets fashion

Following the recommendation of a friendly local who we sat next to on the flight over, we had ourselves some panzerotti (deep fried folded pizza) at Luini’s. It was so good that we went again the next day.

The lunch time queue outside of Luini’s

Worth the queue – spinach and ricotta cheese panzerotti from Luini’s

Having had enough of window shopping, we set out in search of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church to have a look at Leonardo da Vincci’s “The Last Supper” mural. When we finally found the place (after some getting lost and stumbling upon another pretty church) we didn’t get to see the mural as phone reservation was required, and to preserve the mural, only 25 visitors are allowed in every 15 minutes.

Man cycling in front of the Santa Maria delle Grazie. A lot of men in smart suits cycle around Milan

We never thought we would do this in Italy, but we ended our Milan stay with cheap and good Chinese food – fried rice, fried noodles, chilli prawns and vegetables with oyster sauce.

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“Bersih” in the Portuguese countryside

Sorry for the hiatus. We’ve been tied up with work. Just the usual stuff: baby-sitting, cleaning wine tanks, farming, feeding chickens, ironing… that sort of stuff.

It all started about two weeks ago when we got a bit tired of sightseeing. So we registered ourselves as workaways and discovered a totally new dimension to traveling. Workaway-ing a very good deal for travellers because in exchange for work, you get accommodation and food (depending on the hosts) and experience everyday life in the areas you choose, as opposed to the usual made-for-tourist crap.

We’ve been staying with and working for Hugh and Jane Forestier-Walker (and their two dogs and three cats) at their country home cum bed and breakfast, the Quinta Dos Tres Rios since Monday. Wanting to escape the “red tape, onerous legislation and UK rat-race”, in 2005 the couple sold off their famous smokery business which they ran from South Wales, bought a piece of land in the small village of Parada de Gonta (about 20 minutes from Viseu), and set about restoring the abandoned house that came with it. It’s now a top-end bed and breakfast, which they run by themselves with the occasional hand from their family and friends.

Quinta Dos Tres Rios

We’re absolutely loving it here – Sara gets to indulge in two of her favourite pastimes (cats and ironing) and the both of us are enjoying the hands-on experience of working the land (like everyone else here, they grow their own fruits and vegetables and make their own wine) as well as life in rural Portugal.

Chicken and duck feeding time. The cockerel attacked Sara right after this photo was taken

For some reason, Sara thinks ironing is a lot of fun

Digging and raking is much more fun (and better exercise) than ironing

Fun task of playing with Hugh and Jane's granddaughter Eilah

Not much fun when Zero broke the pot and we had to clean up his mess

Getting a quick lesson on grapevines

Cleaning wine tanks - this was a 1000-litre wine tank

We both crawled inside (not together, but in different tanks) to give the tanks a good scrub

Dylan keeping his head warm

Hugh and Jane have made us feel like part of their extended family. Every night Jane whips up fabulous dinners, and we particularly enjoy Hugh’s almost daily attempts to teach his 84-year old mother in the UK how to use Skype on her new iPad. “Slide your finger firmly but gently across the screen like you’re stroking a feather, find the button that looks like a camera and tap on it…”

Their good friends, George and Di live in another village about 20 minutes away. George was particularly interested in meeting us when he found out that we were from Malaysia as he has many fond memories from his time there as a British army paratrooper in the 1970s. We spent some time listening to his stories of encountering wildlife and people in the forest as well as being stuck in a parachute way up in the forest canopy – we will have to record his amazing stories someday.

Hugh showing off his potatoe mashing skills. The couple also makes their own jam, marmalade, chutney, olive oil and mayonnaise, among other things.

The cats, Zero and Kit Kat, at one of the warmer areas in the house. Jet (Zero's sister) only comes into the house once in a while.

Our first lunch there, on the patio

Kit Kat likes to go for walks in the evening and complains when he's left behind

Hugh gave us a tour of an old textile mill located within their property. He plans to turn it into a top-notch apartment complex for old folks

Yesterday, Hugh and Jane gave us some time off to sit down or “duduk bantah” in solidarity with our friends who bravely took on the water cannons, tear gas and razor wire on the streets of Kuala Lumpur during the Bersih demonstration for free and fair elections.

Sitting down on the job in support of a worthy cause and our brave friends in Malaysia

More work to be done in the next few days before we become tourists again. Leaving for Porto on the 2nd and flying off to Milan, Italy, the following day.

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