Fresh from our week voyage, we still had a long weekend to burn in Croatia, so we decided to get a rental car and travel the mainland, passing through the neighbouring state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Tam had come down with a bit of sickness over the day, but stayed relatively quiet throughout, thinking it was the product of a hangover. Much more relaxed at driving on the right hand side of the road, Mitch easily made it out of Split and we sped north up the highway to the Plitvice Lakes. The last occupant of the car left behind their urban beats CD, uncensored and full of the ‘n’ word. It made for good listening on our daily long drives (up to 7 hours).
The Plitvice Lakes, famous for its cascading lakes and karst landscapes was an amazing location. The greenery at this altitude distinct from the dry beaches to the west. Our accommodation was located 10 minutes from the entrance in a charming cottage with a restaurant. Dinner was a peka of lamb, tomatoes and potatoes, cooked for over 2 hours in their own juices – beautiful dish. Tam was still a bit ginger, but managed to get into it.
Walking the lakes early the next morning was definitely a good option. The magic of the lakes, uninterrupted by the thousands of tourists who arrived later was best seen at 7am. We walked the track for several hours and with an inclusive boat ride and return bus ride the trip was well worth the entry fee. We had to dodge the hordes on our exit who had taken over the place, swarming for photo locations. On our departure Mitch managed to knock one of the bollards over with the rental, no damage to either, but not the best start to our 7 hour trip to Sarajevo (we didn’t even know if our insurance covered us there!).
The border crossing near Bihac was a queue of 20 cars, patrolled by stray dogs looking out for wayward scraps or small children. We handed over our passports and our credit card, only to find a confused face. No tourist visa fee! He did ask us in his best English for our pin number! Once through, we noticed that Bosnia was a completely different place – a big difference in an EU country and a non-EU country. The rural houses were derelict in places, piles of haystacks dotted the fields and the roads had a speed limit of 60km/h. We noticed no-one strictly adhered to this limit though – Mitch didn’t for a short while and saw a distinct camera flash (he is now waiting for a speeding ticket fine written in Cyrillic). Most of the other road signs didn’t make any sense, apart from the one that had a horse and cart and a tractor on it – we saw a few of those. A few dogs decided to chase the car for several hundred metres down the road, probably due to the Croatian number plates. While Mitch tried not to hit any of them, they continued to persist and circle the car until we picked up enough speed.
We arrived in Sarajevo to the most earnest and hospitable hotel owners, who promptly helped us park the car, sat us down, gave us a drink and laid on the charm. A cheap taxi into the old town showed the extent of damage Sarajevo sustained in the Bosnian War of the 90’s. For 3 years, 9 months, 1 week and 6 days Sarajevo was subject to rocket and artillery fire in a siege from the Serb-Yugoslavian armies, killing and terrorising the local residents (an average of over 300 rounds per day). The damage is still visible in many buildings, with caved roves and shrapnel and bullet holes in the walls. A few places sold fake bullets, helmets and other military paraphernalia, seemingly proud. Despite the damage and large population losses, the centre of town has been rebuilt and is bustling with markets and activity. The heavy Bosniak Muslim influence is prominent here, with carpets lanterns and incense the main wares. Most of the restaurants were soccer themed and sported a big soccer ball logo over their name with the food here great, again very different and similar to the Middle Eastern kebab dishes. We finished off the night strolling back to Latin Bridge, the site where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, the catalyst to start WWI and the further atrocities that followed. Sarajevo gave us plenty of reminders of the violent history that has been a part of this area.
The next days trip to Dubrovnik was not the best for Mitch. He had picked up Tam’s bug and began vomiting along the roadside several times along the trip. Tam took over the driving in places, a good first go for her, not having driven on the right hand side, or having driven since December.
We arrived at Mostar, another focal point of the Bosnian war, part of the Croatian push for more territory. Here the iconic bridge in the old town was destroyed, but to be later rebuilt, exactly as it was in 1997. A few locals were walking the edge of the bridge heckling tourists for a few Marka so that they could jump off. Mitch was keen to give it a go before he got the bug, but the 25m drop and the building rage in his stomach wouldn’t agree.
Crossing back into Croatia we passed through the small Bosnian passage of Neum, gifted from the Dubrovnik Kingdom of Ragusa to the Ottoman Empire for protection from the Republic of Venice. This 20km of coast cuts Croatia in two and provides Bosnia with a port and a large influx of tourism.
Our arrival to Dubrovnik was amazing. As the road opened up and we crossed the high level bridge, we saw a sea full of titanic ocean liners, all jostling for space in the harbour. We could only guess how many retired pensioners were sunning themselves on the upper decks of these floating rest homes – complete with pools, gyms, casinos – everything. Dubrovnik Old town itself was a massive walled medieval fortress, filled with orange tiled houses and narrow alleyways. Mitch’s first impression was to power chuck at the footsteps of the fort then go home for a big sleep while Tamson returned to check out the nightlife and a photo exhibition of the Bosnian War.
We did reattempt the Old Town the following day. Mitch was feeling much better and had is appetite back when we circled the old city and took in all the surrounds. A few holes in the wall we found led to cliff-side bars, perfect for watching the sun set. Again, rising early helped us dodge the tourist hordes later in the day. A young teenage girl, unknowingly separated from her father (also wearing a blue shirt) grabbed Mitch by the back of the arm for a good few seconds and pointed asking politely in German for an ice-cream. Mitch was a bit bemused and replied that he was sorry and shouldn’t be buying young girls ice-creams. The girl ran away in shock as she realised she wasn’t holding her father. The parents were in stitches laughing about 10m back.
We wished we had a bit more time to explore Dubrovnik and try the cuttlefish risotto, but felt we got a lot into a day there. On our flight back via a quick stop in Vienna we managed to do some more travel planning and get some rest. Mitch after going out to the departures lounge, had an interesting encounter with a couple in customs, who were blocking the passengers in a long embrace. She was bound for Bangkok, he was bound somewhere else. She looked long into his eyes, with big puppy dog eyes, then blurted out “500!”. In a hurried fashion, he quickly fished 500 euros out of his wallet, looked red faced at the others in the queue and sped off to his gate.
Not much planned for a while until Iceland in November, so will explore some more English countryside in the meantime, get some use of the bikes in the last summer months.