Mostar

The bus arrived in the austere light of an ethereal sky. Darkness was quickly descending, and I could only clearly make out the most severe silhouettes, like the large cross high up on the hillside and the domed roof and minaret of the mosque.

A cluster of old women holding hand painted signs jostled for position and called out with phrases memorised through painstaking repetition to advertise their pension or spare room. We walked out of the coach park and into the streets where we led a small pack of stray dogs around terraces, slipways and side streets.

We eventually found our hostel, locked and in complete darkness, it was with a tentative ring of the bell that we summoned our hosteller. A widow of inconsiderable height but considerable girth, she thrust upon us a box of chocolates and led us through a maze of passages and stairways to our room. We were to share with a couple who were travelling back through Europe to reach a French hospital where they were to be treated for their unspecific but apparently communicable illness. I chose a bed as far away from theirs as possible and tried to breathe as little as I could.

My travel companion and I had been travelling around Croatia for several weeks and were becoming desensitised to architectural beauty, but Mostar took us both by surprise. Winding cobbled streets, vendors minding stalls filled with remnants of the Yugoslav wars, ornate brass jewellery and paraphernalia of indeterminate age and purpose, booming voiced old men selling a spectrum home brewed spirits, bustling bars, and, of course, the Stari Most upon which a lone figure stood watching and waiting, created a city which  seemed to us pure and unspoilt.

We spent a few hazy nights drinking our way through the establishments of Mostar and revelled in the raucous atmosphere of Ali Baba’s, the cave bar, and drank in the views of the city from the Sky Lounge Roof Bar.

But, the time to depart was quickly upon us. After spreading pocketfuls of coins on the floor to buy two bus tickets to Dubrovnik, we left Mostar with fond memories and plastic bags stuffed full of crudely distilled spirits.

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Is the World Such a Big Place After All?

‘It’s a small world’ is a phrase that absolutely everyone will find themselves uttering at some point. Realistically it shouldn’t make sense, the world is the largest place that we’re ever likely to explore, but bizarre events that bring truth to this maxim do seem to be strangely common. I experienced a double helping of this peculiarity on a trip across Europe.

This strange series of events began in Nice, the sun drenched city on the French Riviera. Travelling alone and having little more meaningful conversation than an argument in broken French about the validity of my ticket rather whets the appetite for companionship, and when I saw a fellow solo traveler who seemed to be conducting a detailed study of our roommates, I struck up conversation. I asked him what he was doing and he explained that he was identifying those most likely to snore, apparently he had developed it into something of an art. As a snorer myself, I steered him away from this unusual pursuit and asked him whether he’d like to spend the day exploring Nice together. He agreed and we headed to the beach, where he was astounded by the similarity of my Sun deprived torso to that of a snowman’s, after this flattering remark I didn’t feel nearly as bad about snoring. We discussed onward travel plans, he was planning to head to Corsica where he had arranged for a free bed through Couchsurfing, after which he planned to fly back home to Argentina. I was heading to Marseilles before a week in Arles and we parted with the promise of staying in touch that we both knew was often made but seldom adhered to.

As reluctant as I was to leave the paradisiacal Nice, I was excited to reach the bustling port of Marseilles and spared little thought for my new friend. It was therefore something of a shock when we tripped over each other in a nondescript backstreet. I vividly remember the ill fitting lurid green vest that he was wearing, and, as a special display of my happiness and surprise at our unexpected reunion, I didn’t mention it at all. Our meeting was short lived as he was in somewhat of a hurry to catch a ferry and we said another jilted farewell and promised, more sincerely this time, to keep in touch

This meeting certainly stuck in my mind, the chances of us both to walking that exact same street at the exact same time was surely tangible proof that the world really wasn’t so big after all. However an expansive trip produces plenty of fodder that pushes even the most memorable of events from the forefront of your mind and by the time I reached Barcelona three weeks later I had almost forgotten my boomerang companion.

Thus, reveling in the beauty of Tibidabo and the unbelievable views that it afforded over the city of Barcelona, I did not immediately notice my friend who was hiding under the shade of a baseball cap that must have been at least two sizes too large for him. I did not even notice him when I saw a clumsy figure bound up to me with the grace of a sea lion, it was not until he tapped me on the shoulder that I noticed his beaming and familiar face.

At this point I began to ask questions, why was this man following me around Europe? Was I suffering from some disorder of the nervous system induced from an abundance of continental wine? And finally, was I the victim of some elaborate and opportunistic repeat robbery? As that would certainly explain where my clean socks kept disappearing to.

My friend had changed his travel plans and met his parents in Barcelona and we exchanged the predictable “I can’t believe it” and “This is so weird” and this time didn’t even mention keeping in touch, as fate had apparently already guaranteed this for us.

This strange event has led me to conclude that I will either one day stumble across a TV channel documenting my entire life, or there is an Argentinean man who was developed an elaborate and ingenious system to steal my socks.

The Canals of Venice

The loud chatter of an American couple dragged my attention back to the dregs of my espresso, bought to combat the fatigue of a very early flight to Marco Polo airport. The smoke of a hastily rolled cigarette danced in the breeze, over the heads of those passing, and dissipated over the canal. I chucked a few euros onto the table and wandered along the street in no direction in particular.

Buildings tried to reach each other as the streets became narrower and narrower. I continued down alley after alley in a series of increasingly frequent episodes of déjà vu. I emerged from the mouth of a street that I would have placed very good odds on me having emerged from before, and was quite taken aback.

Stretched out before me was the beauty of the Grand Canal. Boats of various shapes and sizes glided through the water, ferrying others through the maze of waterways. I stood there and watched for some time, not just at the canal, pregnant with passengers, but also at the vast Rialto bridge. This huge structure connects the San Marco and San Polo districts of Venice and provides a thoroughfare for the huge swathes of tourists, taking the opportunity to use the shimmering backdrop of the canal as the perfect setting for their glamorous holiday photos. Romantic couples secure their love forever through the medium of a brass padlock, clipped onto the bridge to add a sense of permanence to their fleeting tryst in Venice.

I retired to a restaurant, that wouldn’t break the bank, alongside one of the smaller waterways. I sipped a glass of aperol and nibbled on a small dish of olives when my train of thought was shifted from my aperitivo. A gondola approached, punted along by a large lunged chap who very enthusiastically serenaded the couple sitting below, politely smiling at each other.

This image of a gondola propelled by a gondolier in striped t shirt and straw hat unconsciously enlivens the romantic within even the sternest of hearts, something about bobbing down any stretch of water in Venice seems a deeply appealing thing. I wonder whether the Veritas rubbish collectors feel the same.

I finished my dinner, paid the cheque, strolled back to the edge of the water and having no particular plan, decided to follow it indefinitely. Wandering up and down streets, over bridges big and small I soon lost the initial canal, but it didn’t matter, I picked waterway after waterway at random until I became hopelessly lost. I emerged from the mouth of a particularly dark and narrow street into St Marks Square, a wide open marble forum. Eerie in the darkness, the majority of tourists having left and worryingly devoid of pigeons, I crossed the square and trudged through the square, accompanied by the imperious architecture. When lo, I reached the Riva Degli Schiavoni and the sea was in view.

Venice has peculiar relationship with water. It’s characterised by its dependence on water, it’s what makes it unique, but also threatens to envelop it as the city continues to sink. My stay in Venice was unequivocally enjoyable, a perfect mixture of culture and canals.

Runner up at the Senior Travel Expert travel writing competition

http://seniortravelexpert.com/travel-water-writing-competition-winners/