April 15, 2016: Bosnia

Even getting to bed on the late side, around two in the morning, we were up at eight today.  Dominica had the idea that we would lug the luggage up the hill on the early side so that we could get that out of the way and be able to check out of the apartment and then be free to see Sarajevo while the car was still parked.  That was we would not be rushed and not miss things that we wanted to see.  This made sense to me and felt like it would make the day a bit more relaxed so we did that.

Getting the luggage all packed and up the hill was no small thing.  The luggage is heavy, we have one of the large suitcases, packed to over twenty five kilograms, and the smaller red suitcase, the giant purple backpack loaded to the hilt and the sling bag.  It is a lot to carry and going up the steep hill was exhausting.  But when it was done I was very glad that we had done it.  We were able to go back and check out of the apartment and be footloose and fancy free early on, making it very easy to explore the old town.

It was after nine, but not late at all, when we set out to explore the city.  We walked around the amazing old town for a while.  Sarajevo in the daylight is just as exciting and awesome as we felt like it was last night in the dark.  What a cool city.  The old town is almost entirely pedestrian with all of the expected shops, restaurants, cafes, gelaterias, twisting old streets, mosques, churches and museums that you expect in a place like this.

Our two biggest thing that we wanted to see this morning are the bridge where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and where World War I began, and to find someplace to get breakfast.  There are tons and tons of street cafes in Sarajevo but finding something with the kind of breakfast that we wanted was pretty hard to do.  We ended up walking around for a while and finding the bridge where the duke was killed before we found a place to eat.

World War 1 started right here

We settled on an empty restaurant on a back street for some food.  Turns out that it was empty for a reason, the food was not very good.  The owner was friendly but the food was all just like frozen vegetables heated up for us and such.  No one really liked their meals but I got a salmon steak that was actually quite good.  So I made out well while everyone else got a cheap, frozen meal at best.  It was fine, just not what we were hoping for eating on the street in Sarajevo’s old town.

We did not stay for long, we have a very busy day with a lot of driving to do ahead of us.  So by half past twelve we had hiked back up the hill to find our car.

When we went to get into the car we noticed that the passenger window was wide open.  Dominica had jumped out so quickly last night that she had forgotten to close it and Mohammad and driven it and parked it for us in the tight space and had not closed it either.  I had just been handed the keys and had not inspected the car after we unloaded the luggage.  And somehow we did not notice the window being wide open (wide open is harder to spot than half open) when we loaded the car up with luggage this morning.  So it has sat all night and all morning being wide open and no one messed with it at all. And while this is a back street, it is a busy one with foot and car traffic constantly.

The drive out of Sarajevo was an awesome one.  We got to do the length of the city down in the valley so went out of the old town and into the new parts of the city and got to see a lot of different style areas and neighbourhoods including the government buildings (including the famous one in the pictures that was destroyed by artillery fire during the war.)  Even the new parts of Sarajevo seem like a really cool city.  This seems like the kind of city that you would really want to live in.

Going out of the city we followed the train for a bit and then headed back up into the mountains.  It was another nice drive, but not as nice as last night, but tons of mountains and beautiful areas.  It was only a few hours and we were down to Mostar.

Mostar is famous for its Stari Most or old bridge which is very old and rather unique and famous for people jumping off of it.  There is an old town (Stari Grad) near the bridge which is very quaint and cool, too.  Rick Steves has covered Mostar quite a bit so we know it well from his show.  Mostar is the big travel destination in Bosnia and was on our route to southern Croatia so we wanted to be sure to get to see it while we were in the area.  It would have been a shame to have missed it.  From Rick Steve’s Best of Europe I always had the impression that Mostar was a small place but it is one of the largest cities in Bosnia and rather large.

The terrain down in Mostar is completely different from that around Sarajevo or north.  Those areas are green and lush in high mountains.  The Mostar area has much lower mountains and it is very dry looking more like the drier areas of Spain, for example, or of Crete.

It took a bit of driving around to figure out how to get to the old bridge area.  Once we were there, though, it was easy with municipal parking guiding us as to where to go.  Parking was about five Euros for an hour, which was all that we figured that we would need.

From the parking the walk to the bridge was really quick.  We went into the old town and discovered that it had been turned into a horrible tourist trap complete with hawkers and kids begging for money (kids who were not poor, just begging because that’s what kids do in tourist areas.)  It’s awful.  It’s uncomfortable being there and completely pointless.  Sure the old town is gorgeous and old and really neat, but they have done such a terrible job letting it turn into an endless tourist trap and not having the necessary tourism police like Morocco does to deal with the “tourism begging” problem and not keeping hawkers from harassing people there is no reason to be there.  The place is packed with tourists all there to see people pretend to jump off of a bridge (people really do jump, but not very often and most people just get tricked into waiting or paying for something that never happens.)  Someone did jump while we were there, but we had gotten lucky.

We walked on the bridge, took a picture, grabbed ice cream, shooed away some beggar kids who, not getting much from us after much yelling “hey chico, hey chico… “ and a hand out demanding that I give him money, immediately went over and bought themselves ice cream and treats because, in reality, they aren’t poor but are rich off of foolish tourists.  I was not impressed.

We got back to the car, the whole trip having taken about forty five minutes, and drove out of Mostar.  My impression of it is that it is really just famous for being famous and there is no reason to really come here.  I have no idea why guidebooks even mention it and I’m a bit disappointed that Rick Steves made such a point of it as to put it in his show.  This isn’t the best of Europe, this is literally the worst little patch of Bosnia that we were able to find.  We drove across the entire country, it was all wonderful and gorgeous except for right here – the one place that everyone tells you to go.  Why?  The bridge is neat and historic, definitely, but worth a special trip?  Heck no.  You are lucky if it is worth getting out of your car to see.

Of course Mostar is somewhat famous for being the site of some of the most brutal fighting of the Bosnian Civil War and the bridge that we came to see, the Stari Most, was actually blown up and the one that is here now is a recent recreation (making it all the less sensible to take the time to go and see it.)  It’s awesome that the recreated it like exactly as it was before, but the sad fact is that it is still just an excellent recreation and not the real thing.  It’s terrible that Mostar lost its landmark, but their tourism system is so bad that I don’t feel as badly as I should about the whole thing.  We did get to see several houses that were still riddled with bullet holes and holes left from artillery rounds.  For the past twenty years this has been the calling card of Bosnia but much of the country has managed to patch this up and this face of the country is starting to disappear.  Around Mostar, much of it remains.  Why, we don’t know.  But from the little we have seen of the country our guess is that most of the country wants to fix what is broken, clean things up and move on to a bright future as a peaceful, wonderful country and Mostar feels like it might be leaving the scars of the war in place to draw attention to itself and try to capitalize on the human drama making war a tourist attraction.

My recommendation is to come see Bosnia, it’s amazing, but bypass Mostar.  Even if you are in the region, drive on by.  Go see the wine country, don’t join the throngs of tourists looking at recreations and people jumping into a river.  It’s just a silly way to spend your time.  Don’t waste your time in Bosnia on this.
We stopped at a gas station as we left town because Luciana had to use the facilities.  We fueled up while we were there.  When we went to leave we had a terrible discovery – our low beams no longer worked.  The car was actually throwing an error that the low beams were gone.  I got out and checked them out and discovered that it was worse than that… the low beams are gone completely and the high beams have one light out!  How did this happen?  Three lights going out in an hour?  We had four lights driving last night, no errors until now and the first error that we get and three of four lights are no longer functioning?  This is crazy.

Thank goodness that we had decided to do everything today on an early schedule in the hopes of getting to Dubrovnik early enough that we could scope it out, get to bed and get up early and see the city tomorrow.  This put us leaving Mostar at three in the afternoon, plenty of time to get to Dubrovnik before the sun goes down.  We cannot have the car looked at in Bosnia because we have no idea where or how to do that, we already have a place to stay in Croatia and if we attempt to stop somewhere we will easily get stuck with the sun going down and having an undriveable car.  This could get very bad, very quickly.

So we pulled out of Mostar and raced across western Bosnia to get to Croatia before it got dark.  We decided that we would put in two nights in Dubrovnik so that we would have time to figure things out as this makes everything a lot more complicated.  We have plenty of spare time built into our schedule so there is no problem spending extra time.  We have made good time thus far and we are really interested in seeing Dubrovnik so are not sad at all to spend extra time there.

We crossed the border into Croatia, our twenty fifth country, and the girls twenty third, around five but still had a very long drive along the coast left to go.  The border crossing was about the easiest ever.  It was a little station along an empty road.  We came upon it with no warning and even when we got there it was unclear that it was the border.  We only guessed that it was the border because there was a little guard station and sign that said “no pictures.”  Even going through Bosnian exit control and Croatian border control there was nothing obvious as to what was happening nor was anything said.  We handed over our passports to first Bosnia then to Croatia and they looked through them, approved them and handed them back waving us through.  That was it.  Not even a stamp in them.  Not even a welcome to Croatia or a thanks for visiting Bosnia.  Not a welcome sign or anything.  So weird.  And this was crossing from the independent Bosnian nation into the European Union, as well, but not the Schengen area.

Going into Croatia was interesting.  We first went along a river into a broad, flat valley surrounded by mountains and then climbed up the mountains to take the highway south along the river.  This is what I would call “Croatia Proper”, the mainland portion of Croatia rather than the enclave in which Dubrovnik sits.  We have to cross another strip of Bosnia before getting to that.  Bosnia and Croatia are very odd down in this area although if you really study a map it makes a little bit more sense when you realize that the mainland of Croatia and the enclave to the south are basically connected by the sea and there is a string of islands that hooks them all together.  Dubrovnik, if treated as being just another Croatian island, makes perfect sense.

Once we got up into the Croatian mountains the view back towards the valley was, to put mildly, epic.  This is one of the greatest views I have ever seen.  The mountains were high and circled this very large, flat valley with this neat river running through it to the Adriatic Sea.  So. Freaking. Cool.

The drive through the mountains was not too bad and the scenery was amazing.  This is our first time on the east side of the Adriatic.  We have been to Venice before, up in the north, but this is the eastern side with the amazing sunsets.  This is the part of the Adriatic that we are most interested in.  Italy might be the famous coast and the longest, but the Croatian and old Yugoslavian coast, as well as Albanian, has the better position along it.  And both does this drive show it off.  And so much of it was empty.  It was amazing how few settlements we found along some of the world’s great sea coast.

We thoroughly enjoyed this drive.  One of the things that is very worth noting is how incredibly different the landscapes of the three major Yugoslavian components are.  Serbia is almost entirely a flat plain of farmland.  Bosnia is all mountains. Croatia is all about the sea.  Each is totally unique.

We had to pass through a tiny sliver of Bosnia where that country touches the Adriatic itself.  Border control here was bigger, but just as simple, as our last passing into Croatia.  Two minutes and we were through.  Even Canada makes it harder than this.  Of course I’m sure that drugs, weapons and crime are far more common coming from the US than from Bosnia, so Canada has a lot more to worry about.

The Bosnian stretch along the sea feels weird just because it looks just like the most amazing seaside, clinging to the cliffs Adriatic villages that you picture in Italy and Croatia but is in Bosnia, a country that you do not picture with a coastline like this at all.

After the brief stretch in Bosnia we had one more border to do, back into Croatia and we were on our way down to Dubrovnik, Croatia’s most famous city.  This drive section would have gone much more quickly but the road is so windy that you realistically cannot pass on it and we got stuck behind a slow moving truck literally the entire way and right behind him were two cars without the balls to pass it making a line of three cars that was so much harder to pass than just the truck on its own would have been.  They were so problematic that they created a line of cars backed up for what was probably over a mile.  Amazing how one slow truck and one foolish car driver that follows too closely to him but will not pass can impact an entire highway.   They actually changed the flow of traffic into Dubrovnik for thirty minutes or so!

We finally got into the city and managed to get pretty close to the apartment that we have booked for tonight.  The city clings to the hillside against the sea so is all very tough streets and tight spaces.  We parked where we could find a space and Dominica sent me out to locate the apartment and, hopefully, a parking space before we moved the car closer and possibly got stuck looping around the city again.

I had a problem finding the place and ended up walking several kilometres down a steep hill, all of the way to the old city centre and then climbing some crazy stairs and coming back to the car from above. It was exhausting and took a lot of time to do.  I was looking for number sixteen and had managed to find fifteen and seventeen but not sixteen.  This was pretty awful.  At least I managed to get back to the car.

We did some calling, texting and Dominica walked down the hill and had the guy come out and wave and then coordinated moving the car down to where she was and we were able to park it.  It was getting dark at this point but I had gotten the fog lights working and there was light traffic and we were on well lit one way streets so the lights being out wasn’t an issue.  We only needed people to see the car from behind and the rear lights were fine.

We got parked and were thankful to be out of the car.  It is right across the street from the apartment so unloading the luggage was no problem at all this time.  We got moved in and everyone was ready to relax for a  while, but not for too long as we were all hungry.

The apartment is great.  The owner had two apartments available and so showed us both so that we could pick which would be a better fit for us.  As usual, the girls did the deciding and chose the first one that we were shown, a two bedroom, one bath apartment with one view directly onto the sea and another off to the side onto the old town.  It’s a gorgeous little place and downstairs in the common area is a really neat terrace sitting area that sits right on out the sea.  It’s a nice spot.

We decided that we all wanted to go eat dinner in the old town which is where the apartment owner recommended.  It is a bit of a walk, maybe fifteen minutes, down to the old town.  Walking to it is easy, it is all down hill.  Walking back is the fun bit.  A constant up hill march to return.

We got to the old city and entered the old fortress.  This is quite an amazing structure.   Dubrovnik was a contemporary and competitor with Venice and is one of the only cities strong enough to have managed to have fended off Venetian advances for hundreds of years and Ottoman advances for a long time as well.  The fortress of Dubrovnik was built originally to protect the city from the Venetians and the fortress as it stands was reinforced against the later Ottoman Turks.  It is massive and the entire old city is inside of its walls.  The entire structure remains intact, even after it was shelled by the Yugaslav army less then twenty five years ago.  The shelling of the city being the event that really brought global attention to the regional war of independence.

We started looking at restaurants as soon as we entered the fortress and found one pretty quickly that had some decent vegetarian options that would keep us happy so even though it was expensive and fancy we just decided to eat there, even with the kids.  We sat outside on the pier so we could see the sea and get fresh air.  It was quite nice and our dinner of sea bass, Dominica and I both got the same thing, and calamari for Luciana and penne with vegetables for Liesl went over quite well.  We did not feel like we were out late at all but we had the absolute only kids at dinner and by the time that we left the full restaurant with hundreds of diners only had one table of two women left when we left ourselves.  Apparently we just closed down Dubrovnik, with our little kids, on our first night here.

We walked back up to the apartment, which was a very tiring walk (especially as I have done this a couple of times now) and got ourselves settled in to bed.  We were off to sleep sometime around midnight.