A Dive into Mostar

One of the things that inspired me to go to the Balkans (way back in our 2015 babymoon if you recall) was hearing stories from my grandfather of his travels to the area. He had been when the war was tearing the areas apart, and despite stories of raids and bullets, he still managed to paint a picture of friendly people and a beautiful country.

He spent a lot of time in Bosnia and the country captured my fascination. I had read a lot about the famous bridge, Stari Most, which represents to me the past and present of this city.

Mostar, like many places in the Balkans, had been a city inhabited by different people and religions, including Christians, Muslims and Orthodox Serbs.  After the Yugoslav war began, it trickled into Bosnia where fighting began between the 3 groups in 1992. In Mostar specifically, the bridge was shelled to prevent Muslims from entering the Croat side of the city.

Original found here

Now the bridge has been re-built in the same fashion at the original. While it may not date back to the 16th century, it has a pretty strong history to share itself.

After arriving in the city, we decided to check into the hotel to park the car before walking over to the old town.  Just as we were approaching the old city, the skies opened up and completely and totally drenched us.  We tucked into a shop for some food and to ride out the rain, but luckily the owner was friendly and the food was delicious.

We followed the water downstream and found a great little point in which to watch the action up above on the bridge. One of the reasons the bridge is now so famous is bridge diving. An annual diving competition has been held nearly 500 times (with a break during the 10 year bridge-less time) although you don't need a competition time to see people diving. Now entrepreneurial locals will dive once the cash pot gets high enough, or tourists can shell out for a dive themselves. At nearly 80 feet tall, I thought it best to leave the diving to the local experts, so we went back to our wandering.

There wasn't a huge itinerary or schedule for our time in Mostar. Our plans centred around the bridge, but luckily so did a lot of the city. We did visit the nearby mosque for fantastic views of the city and bridge, with lots of wonderful local shops nearby.

Years later, you can still see the scars of war on the face of the city.  Shelled out and graffiti-ed buildings wear the direct impact, but cemeteries show the indirect, with 100,000 lives lost in the conflict. My grandfather was a phychiatrist working with people there and seeing all of it made me so proud and really understand more the impact that he likely had in people's lives.

We decided to end our time in Bosnia on the way to Croatia with a bit more of a beautiful outlook, so we made a detour to Kravice.  It's no wonder that these waterfalls are a popular stop; dramatic falls joining into pools made me wish we were in our suits to join the other bathers.  Instead, we contented ourselves with a few quiet moments to reflect on Bosnia and what all it had to offer.

Oh and to extend our time in the beautiful country, a few sheep decided to stop us to say farewell :)

Cotswolds Countryside

Since my American family and friends just celebrated Mother's Day, I thought the timing was perfect to talk about our UK Mother's Day trip (one of the many blog posts piling up from my lack of blogging!!). This is celebrated in March, so I get the distinct pleasure of celebrating being a mother not once, but twice a year!

The week of Mother's Day rolled around - we didn't have any plans and the weather looked to be beautiful and sunny, so I decided to book a last minute trip. Since becoming parents, we've had to do all kinds of planning for trips, from getting a lap infant sorted, to finding hotels that are kid friendly with baby cots, to just plain hauling ourselves to the airport. Needless to say, it felt invigorating and terrifying to be booking that hotel on Thursday for a check-in on Friday.

For our first spontaneous weekend, we kept it somewhat local though (there's only so much last minute pressure for a mom to handle) and headed to the Cotswolds which had been on our bucket list for quite some time.

Due to the last minute reservations and the holiday weekend, hotels weren't easy to come by for a decent rate, so we ended up a bit further south than we would have liked, but our hotel was great. We were at the Hare & Hounds in Tetbury and as we travelled with Belle, I thought the theme was quite appropriate! Since we left after work, we arrived just in time for dinner at the pub before bedtime rolled around.

The next day we had a packed schedule that was pretty ambitious. I had planned for stops in 4-5 different towns for meals, shopping and a wander down the high streets.  We started furthest away and worked our way back.  With this, our first stop was Chipping Campden.  I had no idea what to expect of any of these places other than a 30 second online search, as all had come from co-workers. But I quickly was reminded of why I love English towns the moment we started walking.

After passing through a gorgeous old market hall area, we stumbled upon some locals with stalls out on the street. One was giving away free bread, the other selling some locally made jam. Pretty clever marketing idea there as we came away with olive bread and 3 jars of jam. We ended up near the church which had beautiful vistas out across the fields behind it. After chatting with a local, she pointed us towards the public footpath which she thought would give some lovely views and be a great walk for Belle.

If you haven't heard of the public footpath, it may seem a weird concept, but basically a public footpath (or right of way) is a path which can be used by the public at all times, even if it's on private lands.  Public footpaths often take you right through private farms, with sheep and cows roaming about, most often with kissing gates or stiles to keep animals in and allow people through.  With the sun shining, backdropped to a historic church and sheep, it was quintessential England and a reminder of how I love the outdoors culture here (at least when the weather is nice!!). Belle loves these kinds of walks and was totally in her element, and both Belle and L were curious about the sheep.

After picking up a few bites for a picnic, we made an unscheduled detour to Dover's Hill for our picnic as it was another local recommendation. Spontaneous mom forgot about the reality of toddlerhood, and plans were dashed when L fell asleep within 5 minutes of getting in the car.  So, rather than picnic with views, we picnicked within feet of the parking lot! The sun was shining and we had cheese and crackers, so not too much to complain on there. Before heading to our next stop, we drove past Broadway Tower long enough to snap a picture.

Next on the list was Stow-on-the-Wold. I was most excited here about their church, which I had seen online and on social media, with old, twisted trees growing from the doors of the church (a bit like an English version of Ta Phrom). I seem to have some kind of man vs. nature of obsession, and so these made it on my list of must sees.

We found ourselves falling into a routine in each town - site, shopping and the most important part, ice cream. We left the ice cream too long on this stop, causing L to become hangry (she takes after her mom!), so we hurriedly found a shop and the perfect place to enjoy it, the old gallows.  L didn't seem to mind and found the whole thing quite humourous!

Our last stop of the day was Bourton-on-the-Water.  It was the busiest of all the places we had visited, and after we waited 15 minutes for a parking spot in the car park then joined the floods going out from their cars into the city, I wasn't so sure about it.  Luckily, we snagged a spot on the canal anding L enjoyed feeding the ducks some of the last bits of our free bread. The tension eased away and the village's charm began to work its magic.

Here, the shops overlooked the canals which seemed to be the life source of the area.  Pubs offered gardens for the chance to enjoy not just the views, but a pint, which seemed like a perfect combination to us. So we tried our hardest to get the last slivers of sunlight, and even though we failed miserably to do so in the crowded pub garden, all in all, it seemed perfect.

The next day, we weren't nearly so ambitious having learned our lesson, so our main stop was The National Arboretum in Westonbrit which was only a few minutes drive from our hotel. It was a huge area with lots to cover, and I imagine is probably prettier when flowers are actually blooming. But despite a little sun, it was a bit cold and windy, so we walked for an hour before deciding to get ourselves back to the warmth of the car.

The final stop was the famed row of cottage houses in Bibury.  The town looked so cute as we drove in, but as luck would have it, yet again L was sleeping. Paul let me out in the town and I walked down the hill to the row.  While so quaint looking to me, I began to realise some of the downfalls for the locals of this kind of fame. There were constantly people in front of these houses, posing in door frames, getting selfies, trodding in the plants in front. Imagine trying to drive down  your street, hang out in your pajamas with the windows open or just enjoy a quiet cup of tea!

Before hitting the road, we lollygagged a little, watching the trout make their way upstream, watching others trekking down the row and revelling in a little time away. At only 90 minutes away and with plenty left to explore, I have a feeling another trip back to the Cotswolds is in the cards.

Blue Skies, Seas & Clotted Cream

In 2005, I made my second trip to the UK with my grandparents and sister. This was the time I really fell in love with the country and its cities full of cobbled streets, stately old homes, countrysides dotted with sheep, all of it steeped in history.  We were part of a week long cruise that went to coastal cities in England, Scotland and Ireland. One of our final stops was St. Ives - unlike Edinburgh or Dublin, I'd never heard of it before, but immediately knew I needed to come back.

St. Ives town view, Cornwall

Me circa 2005 - ignore the fashion sense ;)

After moving here, I kept telling Paul we needed to go, but it is so far to make it to St. Ives by train, so we hadn't quite done so yet. With a car, it became (slightly) easier, so we decided last May to give it a go for an extended weekend. After researching, we found that in addition to the distance, my beloved St. Ives was perhaps no longer the sleepy town I remembered, so we booked ourselves into Port Gaverne instead - shortening our drive in the process!

Road trips with 7 month year old babies and a dog are guaranteed to take longer than the allotted time, so after a few hours and stops for nappy changes, potty breaks and feedings, we arrived in Cornwall. Last year we had gotten an English Heritage membership and looking around Cornwall, discovered Tintagel Castle was not too far from where we were staying, so we made a pit stop there before checking in to our hotel.

Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, King Arthur

The castle's claims to fame are beautiful coastal vistas and as the place King Arthur was conceived. While there's no verification to the latter, the views are beautiful.  The castle was built in the 1230's and is set on a cliff, spanning two hilltops with narrow, winding staircases leading you to and from. Not much of the castle remains, but you can see why someone would want to build a home there, regardless of it's connection to King Arthur.

We weren't the only ones to enjoy it, Belle was in heaven! From the water (where we let her off for a brief moment of joy despite the leash rules), to the green hills, she ran and sniffed as only the happiest of dogs can.

The town itself was bustling as well - being a bank holiday weekend and a sunny day meant the crowds were out. To tide ourselves over before lunch, we decided upon some ice cream, but not just any ice cream...... clotted cream ice cream. If you've ever had a proper scone in the UK, you know nothing beats Cornish clotted cream. So other than St. Ives, all I needed to convince me to visit Cornwall was the promise of clotted cream!

The next day, we met up with one of Paul's old co-workers who had retired and now lives in Cornwall (apparently you can't consider yourself a local if you don't go WAY back). We both brought along the dogs and went for a walk in Daymer Bay. The weather wasn't quite as much in our favour with winds and rain, so we didn't make it as far as we'd hoped. Luckily, you only had to go just over the hill and through the determined golfers to get to St. Enodoc's Church, a church built into the dunes in the 12th century.  After that, we decided the best place to be was inside, so went back for a Sunday roast at the pub and a cuppa by the fire.

Monday, was May Day. I had never really put two and two together here, or thought May Day was anything other than a day off. Luckily, Paul had heard about the 'Obby 'Oss Festival, so we decided to take the ferry across to Padstow to see the excitment.

The festival is centred around the hobby horse or 'obby 'oss and is considered the oldest dance festival in the country. There's the blue ribbon 'obby 'oss (peace 'oss) and the old 'obby 'oss, and throughout the city, different 'oss are represented by their supporters with red or blue ribbons. They parade throughout the day with music and dancers following in their wake and eventually meet up at the May Day pole. The pole was beautiful despite the grey backdrop, covered in ribbons and was more than I could have expected from my first May Day festival.

We missed the first parade, but luckily there were several throughout the day all across the town. It's impossible to avoid joining in the fun and crowds when the 'oss passes you by. There's a superstition that says if you're caught under the veil of the 'Oss you'll be pregnant within a year, so we several times heard the joke about it being a good time at the festival last year. Luckily I was spared having to dance with the 'Oss, but it was still quite the festive time.

Before taking the ferry back, we queued up with half of the other revellers to get pasties (pronounced past-ees) from the Chough Bakery. Of course we made sure to get the true local variety with clotted cream and steak.  As it was just starting to rain, everyone was vying for the same seats, so we decided to take the pasties to go for the ferry ride.

As the ferry arrived, L was still sleeping so rather than wake a slumbering baby, we decided on a walk on the beach. Belle loves the water and dives right in, jumping over waves and pretending to fetch sticks while playing. It's so much fun to see her in her natural element and I can't wait til the day it's a toddler and a dog playing fetch together on the beach.

On our last day in Cornwall, we decided to stay local. Our hotel was in Port Gaverne, a small fishing town, but a (very) short walk to on the coastal path took us to Port Isaac. I would have also thought it a small town, but apparently it's famous as it's the setting of the popular show Doc Martin.

St Endellion Church in Port Isaac Cornwall
St Endellion Church, Port Isaac

We were determined for afternoon tea, so we wandered from one end of the town to another. We found a roadside standing selling magnets and jam that was off a take your own, honesty policy. We stumbled upon a church, a restaurant that was shutting for the day and a hotel that looked to be basically closed.  Such is your luck when visiting a small town over a holiday weekend I suppose! We decided to head back to Port Gaverne and the weather decided to take pity on us and offer up blue skies for the walk back, affording us a lovely vista over the water and town.  Before leaving, our hotel was offering afternoon tea complete with scones & Cornish clotted cream to give us one last taste of my Cornish obsession before heading back to London.

Port Gaverne Hotel, Cornwall

When in Bruges

As the song says, it's the most wonderful time of the year across Europe. While preparations have been underway for a month or more in many of the biggest light shows across London, its now less than a month away putting me quite into the holiday spirit.

I've been thinking a lot about the infamous Christmas markets that so many flock to Europe for. Despite the cold weather, or perhaps in part of it, they are the perfect occasion to welcome the season. Our first visit was Germany back in 2011 when we first started on our expat adventure and it took 3 years for us to make another visit.

When Paul's family came to visit in 2014, we took in everything London has to offer for Christmas, from Winter Wonderland, ice skating at the Natural History Museum, carols and lights across the city, but we still wanted more Christmas. So, we grabbed a train and headed across the channel to Belgium. 

Once in Bruges, we set to finding our apartment. The great thing about apartments are that they get you a local feel, the hard part is navigating less signposted streets. Our wandering was not in vain though, we meandered through the cobbled streets, peeking into windows filled with Christmas decorations and gifts as we passed. Following the canal, we found our home for the weekend conveniently situated near the oldest pub in Bruges, Herberg Vlissinghe. The pub was charming with wooden panels, a carved wood bar and a metal fireplace that was far too tempting for a 3 year old with beer that was far too tempting for grown men.

The main attraction for us was the markets so we made our way back into the city centre. In Germany, the market took over the entire city, but here, perhaps due to the city size and perhaps due to the fact it wasn't Germany, everything was concentrated in the square. A skating rink formed the centre with circles of food and mulled wine stands around the outskirts; it was too crowded to snatch an open table so we balanced mulled wine in one hand and sausage in another. The market had all the normal stands you'd expect, but somehow was a little less Christmas market than I had hoped.

Undeterred, we spent the rest of our time alternating walking around the city, with shopping, eating and drinking. The men picked out Cambrinus with their selection of over 400 beers, but we were pleased to find they also had a hot chocolate in the traditional Belgian style, where you're presented with hot milk and a "spoon" of chocolate to swirl in and create your drink. The women picked shops full of Belgian lace and Christmas decorations. We all chose plenty of food stops along the way.

Most of our attempts at true sight seeing failed - we did manage a visit to see the Madonna of Bruges, but our canal boat was thwarted due to rain and when we tried to go to the bell tower, the line was so long and it was so windy that we abandoned the plan and got hot chocolate instead. It was our first trip with friends with kids and perhaps the perfect introduction to how travel could be with a little one (which was perfect impeccable timing as unbeknownst to us, I was pregnant at the time). 

Looking back two years later, it's hard to remember specifically what we did throughout the whole weekend, yet I still recall little moments and details; picking out hats in a shop off the square, following the crowd only to find a chocolate nativity as the star attraction, picking out the perfect chocolate flavours and dealing with what I know is the over tired toddler. But despite the fuzzy memories, I remember it as a great trip among family and friends. It's been a lesson to us - sometimes the best trips are those where you aren't rushing from site to site, but rather enjoy the true meaning of vacation - and of course a great hot chocolate!