Good thing I had already had some mental border-crossing experience with BiH. The next day brought three such crossings. Some of you may be familiar with Croatian geographic specifics. Basically, mainland Croatia is divided into two parts by a narrow corridor granting Bosnia & Herzegovina narrow access to the Adriatic coast. Thankfully, passport checks on both ends are quick, painless and entirely void of stamping.
The entry to Mostar was accompanied by several cemeteries on both sides of the road. I could spot each of the Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox ones. The bus station definitely fit my ex-Yu profile better than any such in Croatia. Other than not having one timetable on display and being built from socialist-style concrete blocks, it was also free of English-speaking staff – which was actually a positive thing given my ardent desire to speak Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian and (optional) Montenegrin. Seriously, one day when I actually start speaking, I am going to update my resume with not one but FOUR new languages.
I checked into the hotel, swiftly arranged a half-day trip to Počitelj and Kravice for the following day, and ran off to town. I was impressed at first sight. Travel guides always refer to Mostar as the meeting point of East and West, but it is only when you visit the place that you realise the full meaning of these words. Populated by both Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Bosnian Croats, Mostar is stunning in the way its skyline is dotted by mosques and churches alike, how its women are dressed in line with both Muslim and Christian traditions and how conventional European buildings surround the orientally inspired old town. Likewise inspiring is the River Neretva cutting Mostar in two parts. I have never seen a more beautiful river anywhere else. Add to it Mostar’s undisputed symbol, the Old Bridge, rising high over the waters, and you get an almost surreal picture. Mostar was definitely the highlight of my entire trip.
Some memories from the city include watching the locals jump from Old Bridge for a bit of cash; tasting amazing Turkish-style burek; checking out some ex-Yu memorabilia; and exploring the multi–denominational cemeteries Mostar is so full of. I generally find cemeteries a great source of history and culture and try to visit at least one in every destination. Equally impressive but quite depressing were ruined buildings all over the city; the remainders of the war. One building amazed me in particular. It was entirely burnt down inside, with only the iron frame remaining. However, the house number, new and shining, was still hanging above the door. I could never forget that sight.
Mostar’s Stari Most (Old Bridge) by night
Aleksa Šantić’s grave, Mostar
I was quite lucky to make friends with Sami, the hotel manager of the place where I was staying. A Bosniak and native of Mostar, he had spent many years in Germany and other places abroad before returning to Mostar. While I had originally arranged a day-trip to Počitelj and Kravice with a tourist group, Sami was kind enough to offer me a private lift to these places. We had a wonderful time chatting, climbing, eating ćevapi, drinking coffee and eventually going for a swim in the Kravice waterfalls. After being disappointed with another friend failing to meet me in Mostar, I was happy to have some alternative company. Both Počitelj and Kravice were amazing. The former was an old Muslim village famous for its art heritage and incredible views over the Neretva River. Kravice is a chain of medium-sized waterfalls on the Trebižat River, which, admittedly, I appreciated much more before I got a chance to see Plitvice National Park in Croatia. But more about that later.
The next morning saw me leave for the capital city of Sarajevo. The road, mostly running along the Neretva, confirmed my first impression that it was the most beautiful river I had ever seen. My first impressions of Sarajevo were rather mixed. First, I felt out of place among rather conservatively dressed women in my short skirt – but then I am used to undressing to the maximum in the sweltering heat of over 30 degrees. Second, the city looked smallish, and I questioned my plan to stay there for entire two days. Third, my friend Jadranka was silent, which meant I could end up in Sarajevo alone. Finally, after conquering far too many hills and cemeteries in Mostar, I could barely walk. I decided to stay optimistic, changed my skirt for some long leddings, and set off for the city.
Sarajevo wasn’t small. In fact, it was just the right size for walking, with enough greenery around to sustain one’s lungs. I absolutely loved the multifaceted nature of Sarajevo. Baščaršija, the old Turkish part of the city, reminded me of Istanbul. The wide pedestrian avenues could easily have been Vienna. The retro socialist buildings almost looked like taken out of Riga about a decade ago. Everyone around looked rather stress-free and chilled. Finally, my friend Jadranka responded, and I was not alone anymore. The food was great; the cemeteries educational; the people photogenic; and my legs were slowly recovering. Full points to Sarajevo!
One incident from Sarajevo in particular stayed in my mind. I was taking photos inside the Gazi Husrev Bey’s Mosque, when a baby girl crawling about on the prayer carpets attracted my attention. I took several pictures of the happy little thing, when her father noticed my artistic activity, and we started talking. Burhan had a respectable job in Denmark but his wife and daughter were living in Sarajevo. We agreed that I would send Burhan my pictures of his little girl. I really hope one day they will be reunited!
My next plan was to end up in Zagreb and meet a colleague of mine. I had the choice of an 8-hour bus or a 9-hour train from Sarajevo. The train seemed more expensive and took longer, but I would not have to spend the entire time crammed into my seat and could freely open windows to take photos. Besides, I have a secret passion for trains – in particular, for those old, slow-moving trains where usual tourists rarely venture. I remembered my rather positive transfer from Thessaloniki to Skopje on a Serbian train, and chose the train option.
Not for one moment did I regret it. Seriously, nine hours were over in a flash. With all the out-of-window snapping, I had little time to sit down, let alone a nap. The fun part was that few of my co-passengers seemed to be travelling the entire distance. People were hopping on and off continuously, providing a fresh flow of observation material. The surroundings, too, kept on changing. Suddenly I realised the Latin script had taken a secondary role, Cyrillic stepping into the limelight. Mosques and Catholic churches were replaced with obvious Orthodox domes. I gathered we must have been in Republika Srpska, that part of BiH mostly populated by Bosnian Serbs. I could hear a change in the language, too. It was difficult to believe I was still in BiH. Seriously, I still find it hard to believe that BiH still holds together as a country; I find its diversity beautiful though.
Possibly the most grotesque experience of that train transfer was the entry of my compartment neighbour for most of the journey. A curtain was suddenly thrown to the side, enter a rather colourful gentleman with a massive golden cross on his bare chest; to complete the picture, imagine a big orange butterfly entering the compartment simultaneously. Not quite awake, I found it surreal. That was not the end of confusing events. A couple of times, the train would stop in the middle of nowhere (no houses seen among green hills and streaming rivers anywhere around), not more than one person would jump off the train and wander off happily across the rails. I still have no idea what happened to either.
As wonderful as the train ride was, I was tired by the time Zagreb’s skyline stepped into the foreground. Needless to mention the amount of dirt which had been flying into my face and onto my clothes for the past nine hours. My face was covered in a layer of black dust, and my white top could be considered such only in principle. Bosnian railways obviously do not invest in new, cleaner vehicles or rails. I am still not sure about the substance of that dust. While my face has by now hopefully recovered, my white top, after a handful of laundry cycles, still bears a few yellowish stains – a memory from Bosnia.
Back in Croatia
The familiar view of Zagreb’s Central Railway Station could not make me happier. I was picked up by Marina, driven safely home, fed to the brim and taken out for coffee. I could not believe my eyes. The only picture I had of Zagreb was from last November, when the city was covered in a grey melancholic aura of the impending winter. I remember the streets of the Old Town cold and empty, with only a few adventurous tourists shooting about. Zagreb in the summer was a different place! First, it was nice and warm, if not rather hot. Second, the Old Town streets were packed with open-air cafes. Finally, there were people everywhere, dining, having drinks, walking, chatting, playing music and simply living the night life of Zagreb. I was impressed. Back I take my earlier words of Zagreb being my last choice of a Western Balkan city to live in. In the summer at least, I would be just fine!
The next morning brought a transfer to Karlovac, a smaller town about 50 kilometres southwest of Zagreb. Karlovac has traditionally been famous for its beer, the Karlovačko, and recently also for its football team, currently in the process of making history in Croatian National League. The reason I went there, however, were neither football, nor beer – rather to join my friend Sandra on the final discovery route of my summer holiday – Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Plitvice is a series of 16 lakes of unearthly beauty separated by natural dams. My expectations from the trip were sky-high, but the weather ruled otherwise. It started looking gloomy soon after we had reached Plitvice following a 1.5 hour drive from Karlovac. Sandra’s mother kept on delivering aggravating reports on weather conditions from the start of the route. Karlovac weather soon caught up with us, splashing out in torrential rain. We were lucky to find shelter in a cave with a bunch of other summery dressed individuals, and watched somewhat less lucky travellers passing by without a dry spot on themselves. The rain eased off after some 30 minutes, and we walked on under malicious, low-hanging clouds, to the boat station, where each of us got equipped with a “kabanica” (plastic raincoat). We immersed ourselves for a while into more lakes, waterfalls, wooden bridges and abundantly luscious greenery, until it just became too cold to bear. We turned back, were stormed in once again on our trip back to Karlovac, were fed generously by Sandra’s mother, unsuccessfully tried to step out for Karlovac annual Dani Piva (Beer Days), dismantled our plans thanks to the rain, and called it a day. A rather long one, too.
The morning after, the rain had stopped, but I had the feeling of ending holidays all over myself already. After a short walk around central Karlovac (one would not need long to cover the town’s main landmarks), a pancake lunch, and getting loaded with Croatian goodies courtesy of Sandra’s generous family (hvala puno!), time came to depart for Zadar.
Goodbye to the Balkans, goodbye to the south!
Four hours later, I returned to my starting point. My query for airport connections at Zadar bus station’s information point, which I attempted in my best Croatian “Dobar dan, kada ima zadnji autobus za zračnu luku?”, was met with an utterly bland expression. “Za aerodrom, mislite?” I heard back. Fabulous. First Croats come up with a bunch of new words, then they refuse to understand them? Thank goodness I didn’t mention the famous zrakomets or zrakoplovs.
That was perhaps the last entertaining incident of my trip. It had by then been exactly two weeks since I left Zadar to begin my Balkan Odyssey, but it seemed like months. During that fortnight, I had seen dozens of new places, landscapes and people in three different countries, travelled by every possible conventional means of transport – and could not be further away from London in my mind.
No holiday can continue forever though. I tried to prove myself otherwise on my 8-month-long Greek experience, and failed. Perhaps I will be back for a holiday in Croatia next year. God only knows. The only thing I know now is that I have had the best holiday for my 26 years. And I only needed two weeks for that.