Kotor – lots of churches and echoes of Venice

When I arrived Kotor was pretty much closed! It was pouring rain, and those locals who were out were shuttling between needed destinations. I braved what I thought might turn into a flood to get from my Airbnb outside the old city to make it first to a modern shopping center where I got an umbrella and then quickly around the old city. The next day, though, the rain dispersed people emerged. First there were locals hanging out at cafés they set up, followed in an hour or so by several tours – one French and another I did not overhear.
Kotor is jam packed with churches! You wiggle though back streets, and come out in a square with a church. One piazza is a small church and a big church, but it is not cathedral square – that’s elsewhere! There’s also a church tucked dramatically in the hills overlooking the city. Medieval folks would have had to go to church really often to keep all these in business!
The Catholic cathedral costs three euro to enter, and has a more Orthodox style chapel and a museum of religious artifacts around the upper floor. It also had this old clockwork just sitting off to the side!

The smaller churches were closed, but the large Orthodox Church and the Franciscan church of St. Clare were also open.

Around the town there are Venetian palaces, reminders of the Stato di Mare. And by the Sea Gate you can see the lion of Saint Mark.

Two questions of development

My Airbnb host and my guide both recommended that I walk to the Yellow Bastion, and pointed to (I thought) a large yellow 19th century building on a hill. Reviews online speak of it as an Ottoman era fortification; I was a bit confused and even more so when I came to stone earthworks with couples and families enjoying the view, but with the yellow building still above me and no signs pointing toward it. I walked along a local road, to the outskirts of a neighborhood, and was now circumambulating the building and its grounds. On the back side I finally had a clear view inside; it is a dramatic ruin clearly shot up during the siege.
It turns out that this is the Jajce Barracks, built by the Austro-Hungarians. A little reading tells me that the Dayton agreement forbids the government(s) from selling government of land, because neither the Republika Spska nor the Bosnian government will trust the other to do so. The result is that some places, like this, are slower to redevelop than others. By the way, the view is indeed gorgeous and while heading to the barracks isn’t necessary unless you like ruins, just beyond the actual Yellow Bastion is the café kamarija. It was hopping on this sunny Saturday afternoon.
Finding myself with a little extra time, I decided to take the tram out to the new part of town and the Avra Twist Tower, the tallest building in the Balkans. I thought I was heading into the center of the modern city, but it turns out it is slightly beyond that – next to the seemingly abandoned rail station, some empty houses and littered lots. On the way one passes a huge gray walled compound with multiple police patrols and ubiquitous CCTV cameras – unsurprisingly, the Embassy of the United States of America. The tower itself is what one would expect: modern, express elevator to the top, bar/café on the 35th floor (with a good number of people there) and observation deck on the 36th. My impression was one of a government trying hard – rather than a natural next step from the modern part of the city it seemed like a highly intentional “project.” But I don’t know the finances or the plans for the train station or areas surrounding it – perhaps it will be a success, or at least the root of more development.

Churches in Sarajevo

Of the churches in Sarajevo, in my opinion the one not to miss is the Old Orthodox Church (Sts. Michael and Gabriel). It echoes with history and meaning. Quite small, its main floor is set partway below ground. It is surrounded by a compact balcony on the “second” floor. Something about the size and the age spoke to me. Outside, the courtyard is one of those spaces that starts public and then fades into a personal area. I went up some steps and ended up in a backyard with a playset. The museum, while simple, has some very funny (to modern eyes) religious art. The 19th century Cathedral of the Nativity of the Theodokos has a gorgeous altar screen, stained glass windows and a good number of icons (though not jammed to the rafters with icons like Orthodox churches in Jerusalem.) One middle aged man was praying to an icon. The Catholic cathedral (Sacred Heart) isn’t huge and is to my eyes attractive but not unusual for a European Catholic Church. I finally got in on a Sunday morning during Mass before I left. Despite the sign I found it locked other times. At Mass there were about ten or twelve people – but it was an early service, perhaps more come later.

Gazi Husrev-beg

It is remarkable the number of institutions made possible by the charitable endowment of Gazi Husrev-beg that are still functioning, or functioning again, today. At the center stands the mosque, relatively simple compared to those built by sultans or modern day monarchs, though still evocative. But there is so much more. Across the alley is the religious school, which now has both ancient and modern buildings, as well as a very informative museum. There is a clock tower, an office for determining the precise time of day for prayer, a water system including gravel filters, free public toilets, and public baths. Commerce is considered as well, with a covered market (“Bezistan”), the Morica-Han – an inn that provides food and lodging for travelers, and a caravanserai (or at least the ruins of one, and I am not totally clear on the difference between the first two and the third!)
There is also a soup kitchen, which today still functions as a bakery that sells delicious burek at very reasonable prices. Dinner for me last night and tonight has been their $1 spinach and cheese pastries!
Gazi Husrev-beg’s life shows the spread of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. He was born in Greece to a Bosnian father and a daughter of the Sultan, traveled to Crimea, fought in campaigns in Hungary and against Venice, married the daughter of the Sultan, and founded his major waqf (endowment) in Sarajevo.

Gazi Hüsrev-beg receiving a Hapsburg delegation in 1530.

Culture, kindness and beauty

Yesterday began with a peaceful house museum of a well-off Bosnian family from the 18th and 19th centuries. As the welcoming caretaker emphasized, they were neither nobles nor Turkish; it was important to her to emphasize that they were regular Bosnians, who were well educated.
One sign was particularly interesting; it noted that in this room the head of the house would discuss plans for making Bosnia more autonomous within the Ottoman Empire. The house revealed details of every day life for someone of this class: the sleeping rooms, the dining areas, and the “privy“ among others.
I then took a walking tour with Insider City Tours. My guide was a very friendly interior design student who hopes to study in Amsterdam. He enthusiastically emphasized the friendliness of the Sarajevan people and the beauty of the buildings. A major theme of his was how much other cultures have brought the Bosnians, including the Ottoman and Austro Hungarian Empires. I got a strong sense that he was less interested in nationalism and much more in cosmopolitanism, even if it came with empires. For example, when I noted that the City Hall was somewhat orientalist in its design, he reinterpreted that comment to mean that the Austro-Hungarians were seeking to acknowledge the local culture as well as bring their own.
He distinctly deemphasized wars, including the most recent one.When I asked him about one of the Sarajevo “roses”, (red infill indicating where shelling had killed large numbers) he told me about it, but then commented that he wished people would focus more on the multi ethnic nature of Sarajevo and on its future. As one example he said every year Bosnians made great films, but the movies that got the recognition were always about the war.
He encouraged me to go inside the various churches and mosques, as well as to head up the mountain on the cable car and to go inside City Hall. The cable car was built just four years ago and gives a dramatic view of the city. Also, not to overemphasize the war, but it does show you what the devastating positions of the Bosnian Serb artillery.
Upon returning, I went into City Hall, and I am so glad I did! Not only are the architectural details gorgeous, but it gives you a real sense of the Austro-Hungarians in their time.


So I expected Sarajevo to be cool sometimes, warm sometimes, and rainy. I hadn’t expected it to be snowy! But there was plenty of snow on the ground when I arrived.

Coming in from the airport, I played count the hijabs from the bus. In the stretch during which I counted, it was 36 women with no head covering and six with head covering. Of those six, four were young women at the same age walking together. Since I have been in the center of town, I might say that a slightly higher percentage are wearing scarves, but that could be because I notice when I see them more than when I don’t see them.

I suppose this links in to something that I was wondering about Sarajevo. Several blogs I read in advance told me how proud Sarajevo is of being a multicultural and multiethnic city, and that the reputation it has from the war and the siege is undeserved. So I looked up the demographics. Prior to the war, Sarajevo was half Bosnian Muslim, a quarter Serb, 16% “Yugoslav” 7% Croat, and 6% other. In 2013, the percentages were 81% Bosnian Muslim, 4% Serb, 5% Croat, and 10% other. That doesn’t sound like great news from a religious diversity perspective. I hope to learn more about this.

As we came in we passed several mosques. I’m trying to remember if this is my first time, other than the one day it snowed when we lived in Jerusalem and I headed over to the old city, that I have seen a majority Muslim area in the snow. (I was going to say mosques in the snow, but I know I have seen them in the United States!)

Another thing that I knew but hadn’t focused on; wow is this a valley surrounded by mountains! The city itself is along a river and is only maybe five blocks wide in each direction before you start heading uphill. That makes it absolutely gorgeous.

I am staying in a house up one of the hills, and once I got down into town I turned right at the Catholic cathedral walked along a street that reminded me of Istiklal in Istanbul (European 19th century five story buildings along a pedestrian street).

Then I crossed a line that is paved with tile work saying Sarajevo meetings of cultures west and east. And just like that I was in something much more like an old town in Turkey. Winding streets, 2 to 3 story wooden buildings, multidomed brick structures that implied to me hamans or caravanserai or other Ottoman complexes. Shops fairly close on either side of the street; not quite a North African medina, but not a boulevard either. I passed two mosques, one of which I hope to visit during the day, and a madrasah, with a sign in English saying there was a museum.

On the recommendation of my Airbnb host, I went upstairs in a building that housed a restaurant and clearly it was an old caravanserai. Now it is offices; The one I recognized was “avokat” – lawyer. After a good traditional dinner, I headed for the hike up the hill to my place!

Well-off place then and now?

Wealth, both ancient and modern – that’s the impression I got from Carthage. There is a nice little tram that runs from a station about a ½ hour walk from the medina.

“Tunis marine” is also where my bus arrived from the airport, it has a shared taxi station and a metro station. The tram takes about a ½ hour to Carthage, and along the way I got a sense of the industrial port of Tunis. The tram is modest and the stations in need of some repair; not anymore than stations all over the world, but I reacted to the contrast with the neighborhood.

Because the contemporary residential district seems to indicate folks here are as well off if not more so than in the area along the beach north of Sousse.

I passed pickup at a school with the parents waiting outside in their cars, looking a lot like pickup at a small suburban school in the States. Nearby was this tennis club.

In the old days this was also a nice place to live. The Punic residents had airy houses up the hill.

Then when the Romans’ destroyed and rebuilt it, they constructed a huge public bath right on the beach.

Even though now one can only see the underground parts, a sign overlooking the site really helps.

More evidence of this being a spot those with means are drawn to: from the Antonine baths you can see the (a?) Presidential residence. (It is the series of white constructions on the hill.)

The whole area could not be more beautiful at this time of year, cool and windy but not cold and with the Mediterranean air.

Sousse – more local and less touristy than I’d been warned

The Sousse shared taxi station is on the edge of town, my apartment also seemed to be out of town in a different direction, and I wasn’t sure what local shared taxi would get me there. So I splurged on a private taxi! The apartment was brand new construction and a block from the beach. It was fun to see people walking on the beach and surf fishing. Also interesting was the texted warning from my host – drinking alcohol, being “bare”, and kissing were allowed in the Porte El Kantaoui area to the north, but not in the neighborhood. Nowhere else has anyone bothered to caution me about this – perhaps evidence of the larger and less sensitive tourist presence in Sousse at times.

That said I really like Sousse, at least in March. The “liberal” area my host was referring to was built in the 70s especially as a destination for tourists.

There are shops, restaurants (that serve alcohol, as noted) and a a small children’s amusement park around the harbor. It was full of people…all of them Tunisian families or couples out for a nice evening! It was a very positive atmosphere – no carousing that I could see.

The next day I headed to the Sousse medina. Logistical note – turns out you can flag down a local shared taxi really fast on the north-south road, they take you to “Hammam Sousse”, a commercial district one road inland and somewhat to the south, and there you switch to another shared taxi to Sousse medina. On the way we went through “Place Lublijana” – I wonder what the story is behind that! In any case, the Sousse old town is gorgeous, right on the sea, with the highlight being climbing the Ribat tower.

Built to protect against marauding Christians (hah – each were the others marauders) the Ribat is an unadorned fortress but the location and history is evocative. From the top you can see the active working port of today.

Walking around the walls of the city was also beautiful.

Alas the kasbah, which is now the archeological museum, is closed on Mondays.

There are some strongish attempts in the medina to “guide” but there were not very many tourists there at all and it is clearly an operational local souk and neighborhood.

And just outside the walls was this inspirational mural – two sci-fi Tunisians telling you, “You are bigger than you think you are!”

An amazing coliseum and Roman houses

Walking to the shared taxi stand in Kairouan I met this guy, though his owner wasn’t too happy about my taking his picture.

My shared taxi left immediately after I arrived and I think it wasn’t a coincidence – another was leaving as I bought my ticket. So at least Sunday morning at 8:45 am this is a very frequent run.

Something I’ve seen on several shared taxis – they stop for gas soon after leaving. You’d think efficiency would have them do that when there aren’t eight passengers waiting – but perhaps they need to wait until they’ve collected the money, or perhaps they don’t want to lose their own time of going out and filling up empty. I wondered if a gas station could do good business locating at the louage station, and what do you know – there was one at the Sousse station! The trip was 1h15, including a gas stop and road construction (they seem to be improving the Kairouan-Sousse road). The Sousse louage station is massive and as always drivers are happy to get you to the right place. Both at Kairouan and in Sousse I bought a ticket from a ticket seller and the prices were posted. I was #7 of 8 in my louage, and then we waited for about 15 minutes for our last rider. On the road from Sousse to El Jem at 10:15 am. When we turned onto the road south toward Sfax we were on a different quality road than I think I’ve been on. A1 appears to be limited access highway with a speed limit of 110 kph. (Not that the driver would have  known – i was sitting in the front seat and could see his speedometer wasn’t working!) Noted along the way – a taxi with a “dolphin-safe” sticker on it (?!) you can’t see it, but I promise it was there!

We arrived in El Jem at 11:15am and it was a 15 minute walk to the amphitheater (you can see it from everywhere!)

The amphitheater is huge – third largest in the Roman world, last massive undertaking in the Roman West (200s CE).

Some cool history – basically the area was dry and poor until irrigation made olive oil a booming business. The town was so rich that later Roman emperors overtaxed it and caused a successful revolt.

A walk through the town takes you to the museum. I thought this could be a bit of a scam even though reviews of the museum were positive. No scam – the museum is totally great and is located where it is because that’s where they found most of the wealthy Roman houses. There are fabulous mosaics, (here I am bonding with a mosaic of the “genius of the year” – really!)

Several of my other favorites included the detail of Silenus riding on a camel

and this poor creature being torn apart by lions.

The largest house in Roman Africa was discovered in another part of town and reconstructed here. There are also ruins of several other houses in situ – make sure to keep going through the rooms and out into the back.

I thought I’d try something new by taking the train back to Sousse, and the station was beautiful.

But it was going to be more than an hour, so I headed back to the shared taxi station. I just missed one but the next filled up in fifteen minutes.

Tozeur, gateway to the desert

(Note – this was the day before Kairouan). I arrived in Tozeur far earlier than I expected to, because the only shared taxi leaving from my previous city departed at 4 AM! Upon arriving, I headed right out to the Medina. It is completely residential, and therefore silent. After the various old cities I have been in, I definitely did not expect that. This Medina is remarkable for it brickwork. The designs that people have made on their walls with these brownish bricks are gorgeous, and in my experience unique. I ended up in a small private house museum that really enriched my understanding of both the town and the Berber culture. (It wasn’t the Dar Cherait, which is much bigger. This family has collected Berber artifacts,, and the man who guided me through was a terrific storyteller. From how they made their tents rain resistant to all the different ways to use a camel (skin, hair, milk, stomach, meat, etc.) he made it come alive.

From the ramparts of the house museum

He also served some delicious tea. This was all for five dinar. Granted he also sells rugs and his wife’s poetry, but it was a very soft sell. It was no problem when I turned him down. Plus I got to dress up like a Berber!

Let’s put the tall geeky guy in traditional dress!

Then I started to plan my next day. I had hoped to visit all of the desert sites on a one-way trip to the east, but it seemed that any I could set up at the last minute were day trips that returned to Tozeur. Also, as far as I can tell, you can’t do the cool nature and/or desert culture (or Star Wars locations) by public transportation. For better or for worse, my Airbnb here turned out to be a small hotel. So with the help of the hotel desk, I plugged into the tourist scene. An English speaking guy with a cowboy hat showed up. He arranged what I vaguely thought was going to be a full day trip, what my Taiwanese companion with whom he connected me thought was going to be a five hour trip, and which turned out to be a three hour trip. This is clearly a part of my visit to Tunisia I should have set up more in advance. That said, the three hours were amazing. We saw two gorgeous oases, one where a spring comes out of the foot of a small mountain, and another with a waterfall.

Yes, in the Tunisian desert, a waterfall. The most fun, however was driving incredibly quickly over the salt flats and sand, and then arriving at the set of one of the Star Wars movies. I am so, so glad I did not miss that. The driving doesn’t look so fast, but believe me it is. Also note that he is on his cell phone at the same time! In the second video you can see us rising over a dune to see the Star Wars set for the first time.

I’d wish I’d gotten to the troglodyte buildings in another part of the dessert that were real people’s homes,, but the set was very cool too!

When we got back at noon came one of the logistics moves of which I am most proud. There was not a lot left to do in Tozeur, so I ran across the street to the bus station. The next bus, and the only one until late that evening, was leaving in 15 minutes! I raced back to my hotel, pack my bags, checked out, and jumped on the bus. I then did some Airbnb work to set back my dates at my next town. The five hour bus ride was perfectly comfortable.

From Tozeur to Kairouan. At one point someone passed bread around and most of us had a bite.