Balkan Adventure Stop 3: Sarajevo

Sarajevo Fast Facts

  • Country: Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Official language: Bosnian
  • Currency: Bosnia and Herzegovina Convertible Mark
  • Population: approx. 555,000 in the Sarajevo metropolitan area
  • Famous for: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggering WW1, the 1984 Winter Olympics, the Siege of Sarajevo
  • Fun fact: Sarajevo was the first European city to have a full-time electric tram network through the city
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The Latin Bridge, Sarajevo, at sunset

Day 6
We had another very early start and boarded the Topdeck bus from Belgrade at 7.20am. Drove for a few hours on a mixture of highways and narrow 2-way roads (sometimes getting stuck behind tractors filled with watermelons!) and had a quick morning tea break. It was already very warm so Laura and I got an icy pole each which turned out to be 18+ alcoholic mojito calippos.

We drove for another couple of hours through increasingly windy and hilly terrain and were lucky to have another efficient border crossing from Serbia to Bosnia & Herzegovina. Had our lunch on the bus and arrived just out of Srebrenica at the site of Srebrenica Genocide Memorial.

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Srebrenica Genocide Memorial with gravestones as far as the eye can see

We had some time to wander around the memorial to over 8,300 victims (and counting – remains are still being found) of the July 1995 massacre and I was horrified to see how many youths were among the murdered; including infants and toddlers. As we were there only a few weeks after the anniversary, there were several fresh graves visible of victims whose remains were found in the year since the last anniversary, and many flowers and tributes on the graves. We also visited a small gallery at the site of the memorial which featured haunting images of victims and the aftermath of the genocide and did a masterful job of putting faces to the atrocity and making it feel real.

From there, we walked across the road to a former battery factory where thousands of Bosnian refugees were held during the Yugoslav War under the ‘protection’ of the United Nations. We had time to explore the exhibits in the factory including more graphic and haunting photographs and several damning photos of anti-Bosnian graffiti by the Dutch United Nations peacekeepers. Laura and I had always been very pro-UN, but this museum gave a very different account of the role of peacekeepers and their utter failure to protect the innocent during the Yugoslav war.

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Graffiti in the Battery Factory

We then went next door to the newly opened Srebrenica Documentation Centre to hear the heart-wrenching story of a Srebrenica survivor who had lost several family members in the conflict and watch a documentary featuring very confronting real footage of the massacre. We had another half an hour to explore the rest of the museum before boarding the bus to Sarajevo.

Needless to say, visiting Srebrenica was a very confronting, draining and emotional experience, but something I would recommend doing at some point in your life. For me, I found it incomprehensible that this is something that was allowed to occur during my lifetime. Even more incomprehensible to me, is the fact that ‘the Butcher of Bosnia’, Ratko Mladić; the man recently convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment for his role orchestrating massacres, torture and rape during the Yugoslav war, is considered a hero by many and whose “portrait adorns bars and office walls in Bosnia and Serbia…[and] name is sung at football matches” (Vulliamy, The Guardian).

Visiting made me feel very ashamed of how little I know of the conflicts that are occurring around me now and determined to educate myself better on them having seen first-hand the horrific consequences of apathy.

For more information about the Srebrenica Massacre (which I highly recommend you educate yourself on), see here or take a virtual tour of Srebrenica here).

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8372 victims and counting…

After checking in to our hotel, we were dropped in downtown Sarajevo for our walking tour. We saw the river, main fountain, the location of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, the Cathedral and walked through the bazaar until we reached the restaurant we were going to for dinner.

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Sacred Heart Cathedral, Sarajevo

Dinner was delicious – chicken and vegetable soup, grilled chicken with rice and potatoes and baked apples filled with spiced walnut and whipped cream. After such an exhausting and draining day, no-one had the energy to stay out late so we all opted to take the bus straight back to the hotel after dinner.

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Pretty lanterns in the Grand Bazaar

Day 7
Had a sleep-in (6.20am!) and headed down to breakfast which featured delicious local specialties such as dates and turkish delight.

Travelled about 30mins on the bus to the Sarajevo Tunnel Museum. We watched a 15 minute documentary about the Siege of Sarajevo and the building of the ‘tunnels of hope’ which acted as the city’s lifeline to the outside world when it was surrounded by hostile Serbian forces in the 1992-95 siege. We then heard from a lovely local who had spent her childhood hiding in an underground cellar through the siege.

We had a chance to look through the siege museum on the site which was fascinating, especially seeing what rudimentary tools were used to build the tunnels that saved the city – including spoons! We also got to walk through 25m of the original tunnel which terrified me, but showed just how small and basic the lifesaving tunnels were.

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The remnants of the ‘tunnels of hope’

After being dropped back in downtown Sarajevo, a small group of us went to Sarajevo City Hall to admire the stunning Ottoman inspired architecture:

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and stunning stained-glass ceiling of the newly rebuilt Hall (the original was bombed and burnt in 1992 during the Siege, destroying over two million books and manuscripts).

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We spent time in the City Hall Museum which showed the best and worst of Sarajevo’s history between 1914 and 2014 and then walked back through the bustling bazaar, shopping for souvenirs and enjoying a delicious and very cheap lunch.

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Some of the beautiful items on offer in the bazaar

We walked through the city to the Avaz tower for amazing views over Sarajevo before heading back to the hotel for a rest.

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Views over Sarajevo from the Avaz tower

To end our time in Sarajevo the tour group went to a gorgeous authentic Bosnian restaurant in the bazaar for dinner where there was enough food to feed more than double the number of people!

Overall, I thought Sarajevo was a really cool city with a lot to offer – I can see why Lonely Planet ranked it as one of the top cities of the region. The food was outstanding both in terms of deliciousness and value for money, the locals were friendly and helpful and despite the sad recent history of the country, there was a perceptible sense of optimism and hope for the future. As corny as it sounds, I feel like I left Bosnia and Herzegovina a better and more informed person than I was when I arrived and I know that my experience at Srebrenica will stay with me for the rest of my life.

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Bobsled Track (Image credit: Trover)

Top 5 Things to Do in Sarajevo

  1. Explore the Old Bazaar and pick up some beautiful souvenirs while you’re there
  2. Visit the stunning City Hall to admire the architecture as well as visit the museum
  3. Indulge in local specialties such as ćevapi, burek, baklava, turkish delight and turkish coffee (as well as crowd pleasers like fresh ice cream)
  4. Visit the funky graffitied Sarajevo bobsled track from the 1984 Winter Olympics (note: best to go in a large group as there are gangs in the vicinity who have been known to target tourists, but a group from our tour went and had no trouble)
  5. Take a day-trip to Srebrenica or the Tunnel Museum to better understand Bosnian history

Balkan Adventure Stop 2: Belgrade

Belgrade Fast Facts:

  • Country: Serbia
  • Official language: Serbian
  • Currency: Serbian Dinar
  • Population: approx. 1.7 million
  • Famous for: Novak Djokovic, Rakija (very strong fruit brandy), ‘splavs’ (floating river nightclubs)
  • Fun fact: Belgrade’s name translates to “White City”
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A cute umbrella covered cafe in the heart of Belgrade

Day 4
We got up bright and early to make our journey from Budapest to Belgrade and were lucky to have very smooth and efficient border crossings (both out of Hungary and into Serbia). We arrived in Belgrade around 2pm and checked-in to our hotel, Belgrade City Hotel.

The rain that had followed us all day eased as we headed out to meet our local guide, Ivan, and start our driving/walking tour. As we drove, I was struck by how grey and grotty the city seemed (especially in comparison to beautiful Budapest), with its prevalence of Brutalist Communist-era architecture and graffiti epidemic. I also found it incredible how visible Serbia’s turbulent history remains to this day, particularly the damage from the 1999 NATO bombings.

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Visible wreckage remaining from the 1999 NATO bombings

We arrived at the outside of the Museum of Yugoslavia and Tito’s burial place which, again, was not the most picturesque venue, however Ivan was very entertaining and educational (if somewhat biased) and I learnt a lot about Serbian and Yugoslav history.

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Museum of Yugoslavia

Our next stop (after a terrifying drive through manic Belgrade traffic ft. steep hills and  impossibly narrow roads) was top of my Belgrade to-do list, the Church of Saint Sava. The outside was gorgeous and I was expecting an equally beautiful inside…

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The enormous Church of Saint Sava

… before learning that despite construction starting in 1935, the inside is not even close to being finished!

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The unfinished inside of the Church of Saint Sava

Fortunately though, the crypt below the Church satiated my desire for beauty – dripping in gold with stunning mosaics and chandeliers.

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We then drove into the city centre and started the walking component of the tour. We walked to the Kalemegdan Fortress and explored there for a while, where we saw the ancient walls, lots of tanks and weaponry (including the cannon that ‘started’ WWI), the victor monument and views over the Sava and Danube rivers.

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Stambol gate to the Kalemegdan Fortress

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View of the Danube and River Sava from the Kalemegdan Fortress

We walked back to the bus, said goodbye to Ivan and drove back to our hotel. After freshening up, we walked to an adorable little restaurant near our hotel called Zavičaj  for a group dinner.

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At the recommendation of our trip leader, Laura and I both ordered what was like a chicken schnitzel roll stuffed with bacon and cheese and a salad on the side. While perhaps not the healthiest, it was delicious and the value for money was unreal – we could have easily shared one and it was crazily cheap. The drinks were also fabulous value – my Somersby pear cider cost ~$2.50! Being the eve of my Birthday, our trip leader had organised for a piece of cake with candle to be brought out to me and had the whole restaurant sing happy birthday. I was highly embarrassed but also touched that she had gone to that effort. From there, we went to a cool hipster bar for drinks before heading home to bed.

Day 5 – My Birthday!
Woke up to lots of lovely Birthday messages 🙂

Went to the hotel’s restaurant for the buffet breakfast (which appropriately included cake!) Laura and I walked into the centre of the city which took only around 10 minutes from our hotel. We wandered through the city, visiting Republic Square, Student’s park, Prince Michael Street, the theatre and lots of fountains.

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Republic Square

We sat down on benches by the main drinking fountain, people watching, listening to some excellent buskers and then using the free wifi to FaceTime Mum. After exploring the city a little more we walked to the Bohemian Skadarlija area of the city for lunch.

Hilariously and by total coincidence, we chose the sister restaurant to the one we had dined at the night before which happened to have an identical menu! Still, knowing what great value it was, we weren’t deterred and shared the grilled chicken shish kebabs and a Serbian burger (which turned out to be a beef patty). For dessert we shared some delicious baklava.

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Cheap food = happy campers

Very full, we wandered back to the hotel and chilled out there for a couple of hours (napping for Laura, journalling for me). After a few games of Head’s Up, we organised to go to dinner at a highly rated Opera theatre themed restaurant called Little Bay. We invited a few others (which then turned into half the group!) and made our way there.

The restaurant was very accommodating and obligingly made a ‘super table’ for us so we could all sit together. The food was delicious – Laura and I shared two dishes; slow cooked beef cheeks with celeriac puree, glazed carrots and caramelised onions, and chicken and mushroom filo triangles. For dessert Laura had a white chocolate cheesecake with lemon ice-cream and berries and I had a slice of chocolate ganache tart with orange mousse and vanilla ice-cream.

We then walked back to our hotel (splitting ways with some of the group who went out clubbing) and went to bed.

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My birthday dinner at the opera-themed Little Bay Restaurant, Belgrade
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My delicious dessert

Overall, Belgrade was a big surprise and a reminder of how important it is to not judge a book (or city) by its cover. While it looks like a grungy, gritty city from afar, if you look a little closer you find pockets of beauty, like the cute little umbrella street, hanging flower baskets and some lovely classical buildings. The locals were friendly and welcoming and many seemed delighted to have tourists who were interested in their country’s history. Finally, it is an incredibly affordable travel destination and the food was outstanding – how I wish you could get meals of that quality for that price back home!

Top 5 Things to Do in Belgrade

  1. Visit the Church of Saint Sava (including the crypt)
  2. Explore Kalemegdan Fortress at sunset for lovely views
  3. People watch on Prince Michael Street
  4. EAT – good, affordable food is everywhere, but the Skadarlija district is particularly renowned
  5. Party on the ‘splavs’, floating nightclubs, lining the river. We didn’t as it was a Monday and Tuesday night while we were there and we were still a bit jetlagged, but they look amazing.
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Image: FamousHostels.com

 

Top 3 Gelaterias in Rome

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Sunset at the Colosseum, Rome

Rome, the Eternal City, rightly has a reputation as being a foodie mecca. Despite it’s growing international food scene, the heart (or stomach?!) of food in Rome still lies in its world-renowned pizzerias, trattorias and gelaterias.

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Delicious pasta at a Roman Trattoria 

I have been lucky enough to visit Rome twice (throwing coins over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain must work!) and both times I have made it a personal mission to taste test as much gelato as I could get my hands on.

 

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Legend has it that if you throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you will return to Rome.

Yes, despite it being winter on both occasions I ensured I had at least one gelato a day (proving that not all heroes wear capes!), and in my quest for the best gelato, sampled a large array of flavours, in both cups and cones, coloured and flavoured naturally and not-so-naturally, and made using traditional and modern techniques. Along with my sister, we researched where the gelato hotspots were throughout Rome and tried to ‘do as the Romans do’ and sample gelaterias where the locals congregated.

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After all of this *rigorous* experimentation, I can say with some (questionable) authority that I have found the best gelato in Rome. So, without further ado, I present to you my top 3 gelaterias in Rome.

Number 3: il Gelato di San Crispino

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Delicious pistachio and honey gelato

The most traditional of my top 3, San Crispino (which conveniently has 2 shops located in the historical centre of Rome), takes its gelato very seriously and prides itself on using high quality, seasonal ingredients and not using artificial colourings, preservatives or chemical emulsifiers.

San Crispino was recommended to us by our Rome walking tour guide and has many certificates of excellence (and long queues at times). After sampling the gelato, I can see why.

Don’t be put off by the rather uninviting decor and not being able to see any gelato upon entering; each flavour is kept in a stainless steel bin with a lid on it so that it is kept at the optimum serving temperature (between -8 and -10°C).

There are fewer flavours here than in many gelaterias as San Crispino strives for quality, not quantity. The flavours that are on offer change regularly with the seasons, but be sure to try their famous Sardinian honey gelato – it’s delicious. Dairy free sorbets and ‘meringue ice creams’ are also available.

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il Gelato di San Crispino. Image: TripOrTreats

Locations: Via Acaia, 56, 00183 Roma, Italia (tel. 0670450412)
Piazza della Maddalena 3 – 00186 Roma (tel. 0697601190)
Price: From €2.70
Rating: 4.5/5 cupcakes
4.5 star

Top tip: don’t make the mistake of ordering your gelato in a cone, as the ‘gelato craftsmen’ believe this interferes with the flavours of the gelato and only serve it in cups.

Number 2: Gelateria Valentino 

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In second place is Gelateria Valentino. In stark contrast to San Crispino, Gelateria Valentino is a brightly coloured feast for the eyes with its rainbow-coloured gelato proudly on display. While still boasting a wide range of natural, seasonal flavours, Valentino also offers some “less natural” varieties (think pretty green mint gelato) and certainly has no qualms about cones – you even get an adorable mini cone when you order your gelato in a cup!

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As you can see, the raspberry flavour was a big hit in my family! 

My sister was the mastermind who brought us to Gelateria Valentino after reading up reviews on TripAdvisor, many of which confidently declare that it has the best gelato in Rome. With its proximity to the Trevi Fountain, more than 3,600 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor (ranked as #4 for dessert locations in Rome), and huge selection of tempting flavours, it’s not hard to see why Gelateria Valentino does a roaring trade even in the middle of winter.

Our family favourite flavours were: raspberry, Baci, dark chocolate and tiramisu.

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Location: Via del Lavatore 96, 00187 Rome, Italy 
Telephone: 
+39 06 678 3219
Price: From €2.50
Rating: 4.5/5 cupcakes
4.5 star

Top tip: Gelateria Valentino doesn’t accept credit cards so make sure you have cash on you.

Number 1: La Gelateria Frigidarium

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Image: TripAdvisor (I keep eating mine too quickly to take photos!)

In first place is La Gelateria Frigidarium, located near Piazza Navona. Like Gelateria Valentino it is a TripAdvisor award winner with over 3,100 5-star reviews, and it was always buzzing with happy customers, day or night.

Frigidarium has an extraordinary array of mouthwatering flavours on display and you can enjoy your gelato in a cup or cone, and if you’re feeling particularly indulgent, have it coated in chocolate!

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Image: TripAdvisor 

For me there were several factors that set it apart from its competition. Firstly, the quality was second-to-none. Every flavour I had the pleasure of sampling was rich and creamy without any hint of graininess.

Secondly, everything is generous; the friendly staff were more than happy to let people sample flavours before deciding, the scoops were large and filled the cup or cone to the brim (regardless of what size you ordered), and every variety was packed full of flavour and contained a generous helping of ‘fun bits’ e.g. fresh fruit, cookie chunks or chocolate bar pieces, depending on your chosen flavour.

Finally, what really clinched it the top spot, is its incredible value for money. For just €2 you can enjoy a small cup filled to the brim with 2 flavours of gelato –  less than half the price you will pay in most other gelaterias. The price of a large cup at Frigidarium is on par with what many places charge for a small!

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Image: TripAdvisor (I keep eating mine too quickly to take photos!)

Those factors, and our desire to sample as many flavours as possible, were what had us coming back to La Gelateria Frigidarium time and time again.

Our picks? You really can’t go wrong! Every flavour we tried was exceptional.

Location: Via del Governo Vecchio 112, 00186 Rome, Italy 
Telephone: 
+39 334 995 1184
Price: From €2
Rating: 5/5 cupcakes
5-star

Top tip: Visit here first, otherwise the thought of all the Frigidarium gelato you could have been enjoying will haunt you until your dying day.

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Well, there you have it folks, my top 3 gelaterias in Rome. Chasing any one of them will guarantee you an excellent gelato.

Let me know, do you agree with me? Disagree? Have you found an amazing top-secret Roman gelateria I should visit on my next trip? Please comment below, I’d love to hear about it 🙂