A lone person traverses the Stari Most in the morning.

A couple hours’ bus ride west of Sarajevo, the city of Mostar is a point of pride for the country. When we asked people in Sarajevo where else we should visit, the answer was also “Mostar, because it’s beautiful.”

One of the old buildings in the downtown, at dusk.

Situated on the aquamarine Neretva River, Mostar’s most famous landmark and namesake is the Stari Most (Old Bridge), a 16th century Ottoman Bridge made of silken white stone. Destroyed in the Bosnian War, Stari Most was reconstructed with the help of the U.N. Protections Force and funding from several countries, in part using stones from the original bridge that were fished out of the Neretva. Local tradition of jumping off the bridge as a right of passage for men has morphed into a tourism attraction, and on a lucky day you’ll see a tourist or two taking the plunge. The bridge is also now a stop on Red Bull’s Cliff Diving World Series.

Staring down into the Neretva River.
Stari Most at night.

The downtown area is a tourist hotspot, with market stalls packed full of souvenirs, artisan shops, and restaurants. Most of touristic good sold are likely made elsewhere, but if you find a craftsman at work then you’re likely getting the real deal. Hand-hammered copper reliefs and Turkish coffee sets* make ideal take-home gifts, so as you walk through the marketplace listen for the clink of chisels on metal.

The touristic downtown market.
A coppersmiths workshop. Jizve are being molded using lead (silver circle) at left.

Outside the downtown area, the city bustles on, a network of roads full of cars and lined with densely built shops and houses. There are fewer physical signs of the war here; fewer bullet holes or mortar shell scars. The neighborhoods get a bit rougher looking at the city’s edge on the west side, but we had no problems walking through at dusk. If you’re not behaving strangely or wearing anything ostentatious, you’ll probably be left alone.

The remains of a building.
Modern cars parked in front of a building, likely damaged in the war and now left to decay.

Oh, and when you’re there be sure to stop by Tima Irma to eat the best kebapci money can buy, served with fresh veggies, cheese, and pita bread. You can even wash it down with a local beer.

A view at the edge of town.

*A slight word of warning: traditionally, the jizveta are formed by pouring lead into the mold, and then removing it afterward. It’s been done this way for centuries, but if you do get one you might want to test it for lead before using it to make coffee.

**A second slight word of warning: the countryside around here may look dreamy, but don’t wander off into the hills without a guide. Mostar sat at one of the fronts during the Bosnian War and much of the area is still mined.

Da Nang City Shots

A boat on the Han River in Da Nang

Da Nang is a seaside city we remember for its gorgeous beaches and amazing food. Tourism isn’t the primary industry in Da Nang, so accommodations can be found that are cheaper and more backpacker-friendly and there aren’t a lot of pushy travel agents and salespeople on the streets. The open-air restaurants lining the streets down to the beach are a mix of traditional Vietnamese and seafood eateries, a dream for those here to eat the ocean. AND it had our favorite boba and banh mi places in all of Vietnam. If we were to come back to Vietnam, it would be to visit this city and Da Lat again.

Well-enforced motorbike laws.
Fresh vegetables grow in a plot in the middle of a Da Nang neighborhood.
A man waters his vegetable plot.
Locals take photos on a closed-off bridge, before being chased off by guards.
Men stand on their boat on the Han River with Da Nang’s cityline in the background.
A man transports balloons on his motorbike.
A woman hangs a Vietnamese flag on her house for Reunification Day.
A woman waits with a delivery at one of Da Nang’s open-air restaurants.
A man looks over a streetside restaurant along Nguyen Van Thoai Road.
A man grills pork for banh mi at our favorite banh mi stall.
Our favorite banh mi in all of Vietnam: a few slivers of cilantro and onion, but mostly pure grilled pork meat and pate.
Stoytcho sits at a tiny table in a local boba stand.
The Da Nang Dragon Bridge.
A toad hides along the Han riverbank.
A man pulls a boat ashore after rowing visitors out to see the city lights.
Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge spouts fire for onlookers at its weekly show.

The Captain’s Seat

The view from the bridge of the Santa Cruz II
At the beginning of our cruise, the guide who introduced everything mentioned that they had an “open bridge policy”. Having never been on a cruise, I had no idea what he was talking about and was grateful for the sentence that followed. “That means that you’re welcome to visit the bridge whenever you like, as long as we are not executing a maneuver at that time,” he explained. My following thought was, “This. Is. AWESOME. I’m gonna get to see how they DRIVE a ship!” *(I suppose the correct word is steer, or operate, but I’m pretty sure my brain went with “drive” in that thought.)
But in the following days I was so occupied (and exhausted) by the amazing cruise itinerary that I just couldn’t find the time to go. When I woke up early in the mornings I would pad up to the ship’s library, which had hundreds of books and stunning views of the misty ocean mornings. In the evenings after dinner, I would be so tired that all I could manage was brushing my teeth and making it to the bed. And in between excursions, it was wonderful to talk with other guests, people from all over, from New Zealand to New York. But this might be the only cruise I ever take, so on the final night I resolved to wake up reaaaally early to visit the bridge.
Waking up early has its benefits, like sunrise
The next morning my phone alarm went off at 5:30 am, and I rolled/tumbled/dragged myself out of bed. After grabbing a cup of tea from the library (yes, this is also where the complementary tea and coffee/latte/hot chocolate machine was stashed, also explaining its popularity), Stoytcho and I climbed the stairs to the bridge door. At first we weren’t sure whether or not to knock, but Stoytcho leaned on the door and it swung inward, so we let ourselves in; the first mate welcomes us on the other side.
A mouse-shaped compass on the bridge
The bridge was totally different from the rest of the ship, in every way. While all of the guest areas were immaculately clean and white, the bridge floor and walls were almost entirely black. The control panel spanned the whole front of the room, sitting before wide glass panels that overlooked the ship’s bow. And unlike the guest part of the ship, the bridge looked actually lived in. Coffee cups were scattered across the flat surfaces and hand-written notes and reminders for were taped on the vertical ones. There was a desk with a giant printer, decorated with a few baubles and chains of tinsel, a reminder that Christmas happened only a week ago. Some of the crew spent it here, instead of with their families.
Dials on the bridge that control the speed of the ship backward or forward
Switches on the ship’s bridge
We spent a few minutes looking around on our own but we were constantly drawn to the vast control panel, with all of its screens and switches. There seemed to be so many for just one ship. Using our broken Spanish, we asked what the more interesting looking ones did. The first mate humored us, explaining that this screen showed our location based on GPS, these switches controlled the power to different parts of the ship, and there were three ways you could steer the ship. Yes, three, including a wooden maritime wheel, a more modern-looking black wheel, and a joystick-type thing on the dashboard. We asked which one served as the main steering method and got an amused look. “It’s based on personal preference and the situation,” the first mate said. “Oh, so they’re basically the same?” Stoytcho replied. “Yes,” replied the first mate, “like a lot of these switches. There are two of every button on the bridge, in case one of them breaks. There are also two different GPS navigation systems.” That explained the overabundance of switches, buttons, and screens on the bridge; they were redundancies needed for us to get home in the event something failed.
The three steering mechanisms for the ship: the two wheels and the joystick between them
The sun was beginning to peek over the horizon when we finished our tour. By this time the captain had come in, coffee in hand, and joined the first mate in answering our questions. We learned that it takes a LONG time to become a captain, and captains-in-training can serve on ships for decades before they’re promoted to captain and get their own ship; it took our captain a decade. The captain told us he’s also served on shipping freighters, where the cargo complains less but schedules are tighter–goods often have deliver-by dates. We were starting to get hungry, so we thanked the first mate and captain for their time and started for the door when the captain stopped us. “Don’t you want a picture in the captain’s seat?” he asked. I thought “What? I can DO THAT?” and I replied “Uh, sure!” I walked up to the captain’s seat, a shiny black leather chair suspended by a pole, and hopped on. It was insanely comfortable, and I leaned back and tried to look comfortable too.
So if you’re ever on a cruise, ask the crew about the bridge policy. It’s an amazing chance to see how the ship you’re on actually works and it’s a chance to get to know the crew who help make your cruise experience possible. They’re people too, and they’ll appreciate it.
Dawn over the Seymour Islands