In 2021 I read less then previous years but nonetheless I’ve read some interesting works I would like to share. My favorite non-fiction work was Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs and my favorite work of fiction was Stupeur et Tremblements by Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb.
On the 30th of August, we spent half a day in Maastricht, marking the first time I’ve left Belgium since the COVID-19 pandemic. We started the day with a guided tour of the North Caves in the St-Pieters hill, a bit to the south of the city. The first tour of day starts at 11 ‘o clock. We were a bit early, which allowed us to have a coffee and to walk around the ruin of Fort St-Pieter, offering a nice view over the city’s skyline.
We were part of a small group of 13 people. The guide toured us for about an hour through the man-made labyrinth, showing us charcoal drawings on the walls and the vault created in second world war to protect art from the violence and destruction. Rembrandt’s The Night Watch was rolled up and stored there for three years. We had three lanterns, one for the guide, one for last person and I carried the third one in the middle of the group. Without the lanterns, logically, it’s pitch black which the guide let us experience for a brief moment, to the exaggerated horror of some. Incredible that people have worked in these corridors for centuries, carving marlstone and hauling it out of the depths. Today, there still is one mushroom farm operational.
We decided to keep the car parked at the Fort. With €6.50 for a day, it offers quite cheap parking compared to the downtown parking garages. and go on foot to our lunch reservation at Harry’s Restaurant in the city center on the other side of the Meuse river: a nice twenty-something minute walk, which led us along the Jeker river and the Nolens park.
At the restaurant, we stared with some oysters and choice three dishes. These are small/medium sized and the concept of this open kitchen restaurant is that you pick two to five courses out of seven options, to create your own multi-course experience. We settled on three courses each. Only our first course choice was different: gnocchi for me and Beef tataki for TingTing, followed by Red Snapper and Guinea Fowl for both of us. Great meal, very fine, delicious food. I heartily recommend this restaurant.
After lunch we walked the city center visiting the ‘most beautiful bookstore‘ located inside an old church, which is indeed quite nice, and enjoying the overall atmosphere of the city with lot’s of people strolling the shopping streets and enjoying food & drinks on the many terraces. Although these looked inviting, we had a hard deadline to meet with the closing time of our smallest son’s daycare. So we headed back to the car and back to Belgium.
The best work of fiction I’ve read in 2020 is a Dutch classic: Harry Mulisch ‘De aanslag’. A book which is very to the point and that leaves the reader impressed. In English, I was impressed by An Yu’s debut novel ‘Brased Pork‘, which has a Murakami vibe.
In the non-fiction section I found Amy Stanley’s ‘Stranger in the Shogun’s City’ a very interesting read and Kishore Mahbubani’s ‘Has China Won’ very insightful. The former a biography about a common woman’s life in 19th century Japan, the latter a different perspective on the geopolitical struggle between the USA and China.
Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men1
After reading ‘Journey to the West’ and ‘Water Margin’ in previous years, I started on another of the great Chinese classics: The Story of the Stone, or Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢), as it is better known. I rate it much higher then the other two, a true masterpiece. It does not feel outdated or repetitive like the others sometimes do. However, I still have one volume to go, the final twenty chapters.
I’ve also read some interesting non-fiction about the past, present and future of solar energy and about the history of the legendary ship ‘Endeavour’.
Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet (The MIT Press)1
The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, Vol. 1: The Golden Days1
The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives1
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Slytherin Edition1
The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, Vol. 2: The Crab-Flower Club1
The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, Vol. 3: The Warning Voice1
Endeavour: The Ship and the Attitude that Changed the World1
The Story of the Stone, or The Dream of the Red Chamber, Vol. 4: The Debt of Tears1
From Mostar we drove to the Croatian city of Split, on the Adriatic coast. It took us about three hours. Halfway the journey, when we had just reached the recently build moterway A1, rain started pouring down heavily. This was the first rain we encountered in a week of travelling. I was releaved it didn’t rain while we were driving on the small roads in Bosnia. Around three in the afternoon we arrived in Split, where we would stay for two nights in Stambuk, a guesthouse near the old centre. The lady operating the guesthouse met us,in the street, got into our car and showed us were we could park for free. The room was nicely decorated but the bed was a bit shaky. I had to fix the slatted base of the bed several times during our stay. This could be due to my weight though. She recommended a restaurant called Fife not far from the old city, along the water front. We tried it in the evening and had some black risotto, fried squid and a local meat dish. It’s not great but also not expensive.
The old center of Split is partly build inside the ruins of the ancient palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian and I was curious to see it. The ruins are nice but I imagined Split to be larger, with more things to see. You can easily visit it in an afternoon. Maybe I feel like this because of the weather: grey with the occasional rain shower. I was more charmed by Dubrovnik, and had the feeling I could stay there for a longer period enjoying the sights and city.
Looking back, I believe that the civil war in former Yugoslavia was one of the first world events I was aware of as a child. I still remember some images of it, that I saw in the news. For me, a symbol of that war is the destruction of the Old Bridge, or Stari Most, in Mostar. So when we were planning a trip along the Dalmatian coast, I wanted to make a small detour to include a visit to Mostar and see its famous bridge, which was reconstructed in 2004.
We rented a car, a white Seat with stickers “try me” on the sides, in Dubrovnik and drove to Mostar. We didn’t had a say in the brand, colour or stickers.
Along the way we stopped in the Trsteno Arboretum and Ston, a small town renowned for its oysters and wall, also dubbed the European Great Wall. I must say that while walking on it and climbing the hill it was build along, reminded me of my trip to China and the real Great Wall. A big difference is that the wall in Ston is only around five kilometres long, and thus falls a bit short in the comparison. The oysters however are really good.
The journey from Ston to Mostar is about ninety kilometres but it took us a little over two hours. The shortest route includes three border crossings and a highway, we decided to keep it with one border crossing and take a scenic route from Neum to Mostar, driving on smaller roads through the mountaines landscape. It was beautiful and quite lonely, since we hardly saw other cars. A little after six in the evening we passed the city limits of Mostar.
The guesthouse where we stayed for two nights is on the east bank of the River Neretva, in a narrow one way street. It took us a bit of effort to find, but it has a very central location, close to the interesting parts of the city. A young couple is operating the guesthouse and we were welcomed by the woman of the couple. She gave us some maps and told us how to get to the different sights. I found her genuinely friendly and helpful. The room was simple but ok, with a comfortable soft bed and good, hot shower. I really recommend this place if you’re looking for a place to stay in Mostar.
At this time of year there are not that many tourists in Mostar, it’s not empty, but its less crowded than Dubrovnik. Maybe we were lucky, but the weather was great: blue sky and sunshine with temperatures going up to 28 degrees.
Mostar is special in multiple aspects. It’s skyline contains the minarets of mosques and the towers of churches. Some houses still bear the marks of the war while others are renovated. On average the cars are older than in Western Europe. You notice that it’s a poorer city than Dubrovnik, Split or Zadar. But the people are really friendly. I’ve felt it not only in our guesthouse but also in a bar or in a small shop. The shopkeepers of the many souvenier stalls are also not pushy. Things are cheaper in Mostar: ice cream for 0,50€ a scoop, 2,5€ for half a litre beer with a view on the Stari Most, 40€ for two nights in our guesthouse.
Ten kilometres to the southeast of Mostar is a small village called Blagaj. It is located at the spring of the buna river and is known for the Blagaj Tekjia, a Sufi lodge built around 1520 and now a national monument. The house can be visited and is quite nice.