There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Dubrovnik (2), Inside the Walls: Part 6 of The Balkans

After returning from Korčula on Monday evening we walked down to the old town for dinner which we ate in a restaurant lining an alley off the main street. A squadron of swifts (or possibly martins) patrolled overhead, squeaking loudly as they hoovered up the insects.

My tuna steak and Lynne’s unspecified white-fish fillets were Mediterranean in style, though the accompanying chard – the Balkan’s favourite vegetable – reminded us where we were. Our dessert, pancakes with sugar and lemon, adhered firmly, though no doubt accidently, to Welsh tradition.

The city was quiet and it was only after dinner, when we strolled around the market square and along the wider streets leading up to the Jesuit Church that we found much in the way of animation. A substantial number of people live in the old city, but most of the hotel accommodation is outside, so the evenings are relatively tranquil. Shops and restaurants do better during the day, but although Dubrovnik is often crowded, the local traders are not happy. Cruise ship passengers in their thousands are bussed from the deep water harbour or ferried from the offshore anchorage. They follow their guides, crowding out the major attractions, but return to their ships to eat. Many spend nothing at all, their visits being too brief to bother with acquiring any Croatian Kuna. Most businesses accept Euros, but many traders see cruise passengers as a nuisance, crowding out those tourists who are prepared to spend money. I can see their point; we found the cruisers less intrusive than in Tallinn in 2011 but we were not in Dubrovnik at the peak of the season. Plans are being discussed to limit the number of cruise ship passengers to 7000 a day, which still sounds a big number to me.

The wider streets leading up to the Jesuit Church
 The following morning dawned blue and encouragingly warm, but the hitherto uncannily accurate weather forecast sellotaped to the hotel reception desk suggested rain later. We took an umbrella.

 Down at the Pile Gate buses were arriving and the crowd was building. Most were milling around waiting to be told what to do, so we pushed our way through. Inside the city it was relatively peaceful.

We made our way down to the Rector’s Palace, pleased to be well ahead of the rush. Our 70 Kuna (£8) tickets were also valid for the Maritime and Ethnographic Museums.

Outside the Rector's Palace, Dubrovnik
The Rectors were the elected governors of the Republic of Ragusa from 1370 to 1808. During this time Ragusa (as Dubrovnik was called before the 20th century) was independent, though under the ‘protection’ of first the Hungarian crown, then the Ottoman Empire and finally Habsburg Austria. In 1808 it was absorbed into Napoleon’s Illyria.

The palace, built in 1441, is now the city’s main museum and we started in a room lined with portraits of illustrious Ragusans of the past, politicians and scientists, poets and philanthropists, not to mention the rectors themselves - a full collection of the great and the good, with a leavening of the bad and the ugly.

The inner courtyard of the Rector's Palace
We worked our way past the roman artefacts, past a pair of bronze jacks – metre high figures holding large hammers who had once stood in the bell tower and struck the hour - and around a collection of chests with locks of labyrinthine complexity. Reaching the inner courtyard with its marble staircases just ahead of the first tour group we stepped briefly inside the Rector’s jail.

Lynne detained in the Rector's prison
Upstairs there were displays of furniture, costumes and sedan chairs and yet more portraits. There was also part of the head of St Blaise, the city’s patron saint, in an appropriately skull shaped reliquary. By the time we had finished we felt we had a feel for city life through the ages, and set off to find the Maritime Museum.

We knew pretty well where it was, in a nearby corner of the city wall, but although we found signs to it we were unable to find an entrance. We returned to the square outside the Rector’s Palace for a restorative espresso.

It is perhaps surprising that in a city so dedicated to tourism, the whole of a substantial city square is given over to a market, not a tourist market but a produce market selling basics like onions and potatoes – and of course chard. A few stalls sell more frivolous food items, and we bought some honeyed nuts and candied peel to take home as presents (and we kept some, too - they were excellent). There are also a few stalls selling tourist tat. I fear that in ten years time stalls selling fridge magnets and Croatian football shirts may outnumber those selling spuds and onions.

A seller of honeyed nuts and candied peel
Dubrovnik market
From the market we followed our map along the alleys on the seaward side of the city, climbing up and down stairs between tall stone houses until we reached the Ethnographical Museum, only to find it was closed on Tuesdays.

Looking over Dubrovnik from the Ethnographic Museum
The sky was darkening as we descended towards the main street, passing the small Domino Church and the house of Marin Držić. We had not heard of him, he was not mentioned in the guidebook and there was no information in English. He was, I now know, a renaissance poet and playwright not perhaps the Croatian Shakespeare, but more of a Ben Jonson.

We popped into the Serbian Orthodox Church, originally built in 1887 but recently restored. Dubrovnik never had a big Serbian population and there are even fewer now, but the church has a good collection of icons. We had plenty of time to look at them, and company to look at them with, as a sudden rainstorm cleared the streets.

After the rain we made our way back to the main drag, passing the highly regarded photographic exhibition ‘Homeland War’. After recent visits to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, The War Museum in Sarajevo and the still shattered streets of Mostar, we could not face yet another dose of man’s inhumanity to man.

Crossing the main street into the alleys on the landward side, we headed for the synagogue. After a week of mosques and churches, both catholic and orthodox, it seemed only fair.
The entrance is through an unassuming door in a narrow street. A flight of stairs leads to a ticket office and a small museum running through the history of Dubrovnik’s Jewish community, now almost extinct after war time persecution and subsequent emigration. Man’s inhumanity to man seems inescapable.

Further stairs brought us to the synagogue itself, its dark wood panelling and deep red curtains giving it a strangely cosy feel. It claims to be the second oldest synagogue in Europe, but no longer serves a community large enough to hold services. There are the inevitable ‘no photographs’ signs, but as we were alone I turned off the flash and took a couple anyway - it could do no harm, and no one would know. On the way out I noticed that the ticket office was lined with screens. CCTV cameras, it seemed, covered every corner of the synagogue. Nothing was said, so either the guardian had not noticed or did not care.

The Dubrovnik synagogue
Higher up and nearer the wall we reached the Dominican Monastery. The attraction was the monastery’s collection of pictures which included a Titian. We walked round a pleasant cloister and into the museum where Lynne was immediately attracted by the relics of saints. There was the head of St Luke, a bit of King Stephen of Hungary, St Dominic’s finger (well it is a Dominican Monastery) and assorted bones from St Damianos and St Stephen Uroš II Milutin (oh, that St Stephen). If you have no idea who most of these people were (and why should you?) click on the links and let Wikipedia lighten your darkness.

Cloister of the Dominican Monastery
Most exciting was the forearm of St Blaise. Having seen his head in the Rector’s Palace earlier I thought it might be entertaining to visit every church in Dubrovnik and see if we could collect enough parts to build our very own St Blaise. Dubrovnik’s patron saint was an Armenian bishop, physician and martyr. He was killed by being attacked with iron carding combs and is usually depicted holding such a comb. He is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers (non-Catholics may find this link helpful), so praying for St Blaise to intercede will undoubtedly cure a sore throat and he is generally efficacious throughout the whole ENT area.

In the next room we found the forearm of Thomas Aquinas (there are bits of people all over the place) and a collection of silver and gold chalices, chargers, monstrances and other religious paraphernalia. There is also the Titian, a painting of St Blaise (who else?) posing with Mary Magdalen, Tobias and the chap who paid for the picture.

The church itself is huge with more paintings and sculptures, some ancient, some modern including a particularly impressive modern Madonna and Child in metal.

Leaving the monastery we found a restaurant lining a relative large and almost step free lateral street. Sipping complimentary vermouth, Lynne selected squid, while I chose ćevapčići (diminutive versions of the ubiquitous Bosnian variant of kofta) partly to show off my growing confidence with Balkan pronunciation.

Well fed, we set off to locate the maritime museum. After further fruitless searching I was prepared to give up, but Lynne was more determined – well, we had already paid – and suggested we ask somebody. Like most men I hate asking directions, being loathe to admit my ignorance of anything to anybody, so I let Lynne do the asking. We soon found ourselves climbing a set of stone steps cunningly hidden between two sections of wall. 

The history of Ragusan sea-faring was illustrated by navigation instruments, flags, figureheads, weapons and models of 17th, 18th and 19th century ships. We also learned about the stone quay outside the harbour where, in time of plague, foreign boats could land their cargoes without threatening the locals with any nasty foreign diseases. The quay is still in (non-plague related) use, we could see it through the window of the museum, but there were no cargo ships. It was a large exhibition and we were there a good while. When we came to leave we discovered firstly that it was raining hard, and secondly there was a second floor. On other days we might have skipped it, but not this day.

The plague quay
Dubrovnik Harbour
Upstairs there was more of the same plus a section on fishing techniques.  Twenty minutes later we peered out of a window and found that the sky had turned black, the rain was horizontal and the sea was distinctly choppy. We returned to the extensive collection of videos on medieval shipbuilding techniques. We watched several, as did a lot of other people; it is amazing how interesting such things become when the alternative is standing in the rain.

Eventually it eased off and we made our way back up the hill under the shelter of our prudent umbrella.

After a shower and a rest we dined in one of the restaurants near our hotel, but returned to the old city in the morning - we had paid for the Ethnographic Museum and we were damn well going to see it. It was interesting enough, as these things go, but I would not have walked that extra mile had we not already bought the ticket. We found a few more presents in the market then it was time to check out and take a taxi to the airport and thence home.

Thus ended our first trip to the Balkans. Dubrovnik is beautiful if a little too touristy for our taste, but we enjoyed Sarajevo and Mostar, and we may well return to this region in the not too distant future. [and we did, to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in May 2015]

Monday, 28 May 2012

Korčula: Part 5 of The Balkans

 On Monday we took a day trip to Korčula (pronounced Kort-chew-lah), a small town – a sort of mini Dubrovnik – situated on an island of the same name.

 On what was to be the only full day of fine weather in our whole Balkan trip, the bus took us back towards Neum. The island-spotted Dalmatian coast had looked attractive when we arrived; it looked even better in bright sunshine.
The island-spotted Dalmation Coast
This time, a few kilometres before the Bosnian border, we turned left onto the Pelješac peninsula. The peninsula runs almost parallel to the coast with the Bay of Ston, a long gently widening inlet between it and the mainland. Like most sheltered coastal waters in the region it is used for the maturing of mussels and oysters.

We paused briefly at the base of the peninsula at a café overlooking a small harbour.

Coffee break overlooking a small harbour
The limestone peninsula is 65km long, 2 or 3km wide and rise to peaks of almost 1000m. We drove along the central valley, its limestone pavements and scars making it look a lot like the Yorkshire Dales. The carpet of vines on the valley floor and the olive trees poking through the cracks in the rock were rather less Dale-like but another century of global warming might even fix that!

Vines on the Pelješac Peninsula

Pelješac is a designated vinogorje (literally ‘wine hill’) and we passed through the ‘cru’ villages of Dingač and Postup before descending to the coast at Orebić, Pelješac’s largest settlement. Orebić sits some three quarters of the way along the peninsula facing the island of Korčula across the narrowest part of the strait.

Approaching Orebić, with Korčula across the strait
Orebić has some 2000 inhabitants though, typically for a seaside town, many of its buildings are second homes. We had no time to see the town, indeed there was barely time for a paddle in the Adriatic before we boarded the boat for the kilometre long crossing to the island.

A paddle in the Adriatic, Orebić
It was a brief but pleasant ride offering us fine views back to the mountainous peninsula. The city of Korčula, the island’s eponymous capital, is just a little larger than Orebić. It sits on the tip of the island which stretches another 40km into the extremely blue Adriatic.

Leaving Orebić
The old town, hunched on its small promontory, was built to impress friendly visitors and deter the unfriendly. Construction outside the walls was forbidden until the 17th century, and even now does not spread far along the coast.

Arriving at Korčula
Our tour provided an hour or more’s employment for a guide, but she offered little information that was not in the guide book and the place is so small it would require a special talent to get lost.

We entered by the Land Gate, the main entrance to the city, and walked up Korčulanskog Statuta (Korčula Statute Street) to St Mark’s Square. The street name refers to the statute drafted in 1214 which guaranteed the island’s autonomy. The statute also prohibited slavery and Korčula claims to be the first place in the world to have outlawed the practice.

The Land Gate, Korčula
The square and St Mark’s Cathedral (built from 1301 onwards) are considerably less grand than their Venetian namesakes, but the same winged lion motif can be found in the masonry.

The square marks the middle of the central thoroughfare. The street plan has a herring-bone pattern with alleys angled off to left and right. Those to the west are straight, allowing cooling summer breezes to penetrate the city, while those to the east have a bend to keep out the cold winter winds from the mountainous mainland. It sounds a good theory, but as we were there on a warm, still day I have no idea how it works in practice.

The alleys of Korčula
The cathedral was covered in scaffolding and closed, but the Bishop’s Palace was an imposing building and the town is a very attractive place to wander around.

The Bishop's Palace, St Mark's Square Korčula

After the guided tour we took our own wander in search of a restaurant. There were plenty to choose from, mostly along the wider road just inside the wall known as the Street of Thoughts, as it is one of the few streets in  Korčula without steps so the walker can address their own thoughts without risk of falling over. We soon found a place with good shade, a pleasing view and mussels on the menu – after passing so many mussel beds we felt duty bound to eat some.

We ordered bread and a bowl of olives – a very Portuguese way to start a meal – half a litre of white wine (well, it was only lunchtime) and mussels ‘buzzara’, the local speciality, which involves white wine, garlic, herbs and breadcrumbs. And very good it was too. 
Mussels buzzara, Korčula

After lunch we found the builders had gone away and the cathedral was open. It is a solid construction with huge arches and dingy corners. Its prized possessions are two paintings by Tintoretto, Three Saints on the altar and The Annunciation just beside it.

Over the door of St Mark's Cathedral, Korčula
Renaissance masters or not, it had considerably less charm than the nearby 14th century church of Sveti Petar (St Peter), a simple rectangular building with an open-beamed roof.   
Svet Petar, Korčula
A statue of St Peter stands on the altar and wooden statues of the other apostles and evangelists line the walls. Full of expression and detail, they are the work of an unknown 18th century Venetian carver.

Inside Sveti Petar, Korčula

A few paces down the next alley is the house where Marco Polo was born (or not). Most historians would say that he was born sometime in the 1250s probably in Venice, but the people of Korčula know better. They have documents showing that someone of that name was born in the city in 1254 - and Polos still live in Korčula to this day. Further, Marco Polo captained a Venetian galley at the Battle of Korčula in 1298, a naval engagement where the Genoese inflicted a crushing defeat on The Republic of Venice. He was captured and it was during his subsequent imprisonment that he wrote Europe’s first great travel book. It is generally established that he wrote his book in a Genoese prison, but the evidence for the rest of the story is a little thin.

Marco Polo's House, Korčula

Marco Polo is always regarded as a Venetian, and Korčula was ruled by the Republic of Venice for a short while before his birth. Even up to the 19th century it was an Italian town although the inhabitants of the rest of the island were Croats. Today 98% of the island’s residents, including those in the city, describe themselves as Croats.

The entrance fee was not good value for merely climbing the tower of an old house – a few posters do not constitute a museum - but the view from the top was good and we sent the ‘free’ postcard to our daughter.

Looking over to Orebić from Marco Polo's House
Next door Marco Polo appears to be operating a gift shop and we made a few purchases to take home.

After a little further perambulation it was time to return to the harbour for the ferry back to Orebić.

Leaving harbour

Back on the bus we headed back towards Dubrovnik, stopping first at a winery somewhere on the peninsula’s rocky spine. The cru wines of Dingač and Postup are grown high up, on the steepest slopes, but we drank the more modest wines grown on the valley floor. The locals are very proud of the indigenous Plavać Mali grape and the example we tried was dark and smoky. I have drunk Vranac (in Sarajevo and elsewhere) which is similar and actually rather better – but it seemed wise not mention that. The white was very like the cheap but very acceptable carafe wine we had been drinking locally. They were asking the same price (about £6 a bottle) for each, which seemed expensive for the red and ludicrous for the white.
More Pelješac vineyards

We stopped again at Ston on the base of the peninsula, the name referring to the salt that is still harvested from the nearby salt pans. The village of some 500 people has a neat grid pattern but its main claim to fame is its wall and the remaining 5½km stretch can be seen striking off over the hill towards the village of Mali (small) Ston. The wall defended the town and also the borders, and salt supply, of the Republic of Ragusa.

The Great Wall of Ston

Dubrovnik was known as Ragusa until the 20th century, but the republic thrived from 1358 to 1808. It maintained its independence despite pressure from the Venetians to the north and the Ottomans to the south until the whole area became part of Napoleon's Illyria. As peace had now been brought to the region and all city walls were now redundant it was decreed that they should be symbolically breached. Consequently the walls of Ston are not as extensive as they once were and the wall of Korčula is not quite continuous though Dubrovnik defied the ruling. This does not prevent the Croatians claiming the Wall of Ston as being the longest wall in Europe though I remain unconvinced; Hadrian’s Wall may hardly be continuous but it must be a contender.

Like Dubrovnik, Ston has a church of St Blaise, but it is ruined. In this case it was not war that caused the damage but an earthquake; a frequent cause of destruction in this seismically active region.

St Blaise, Ston
From Ston we travelled back along the coast to Dubrovnik.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Dubrovnik (1), Around the City Walls: Part 4 of The Balkans


South of Mostar the land becomes flatter and the Neretva gives up any pretence of being a mountain stream. Our route followed the river, leaving it only to visit the bus station at Čaplijna, a town apparently constructed from a cheap kit in the 1960s. Cleaning up the graffiti which covered every surface would have improved it, but it would still be dire. The villages became less war damaged as we headed towards Croatia and mosques gave way to catholic churches

Castle and Cross, South of Mostar

At the border, a young guard walked along the bus checking passports and sent us on our way. Nearing the coast we re-crossed the border, another guard checking us out of Croatia, while Bosnian officialdom remained deeply uninterested. Croatia is shaped like an underfed, asymmetric pigeon. The tip of its southern wing was detached in 1699 when the Treaty of Karlowitz handed otherwise landlocked Bosnia a 25 km strip of Adriatic coast around the town of Neum.

As Bosnia’s only outlet to the sea Neum might be expected to be a naval or commercial port, but not so; it is a second rate seaside resort on a coast packed with first rate resorts. There are plans for commercial developments – and there have been since 1699.

We halted at a hotel on the by-pass. The driver ate an early lunch, the woman in the seat in front of us drank a huge slivovitz and we had a coffee before queuing up with our fellow passengers to spend the last of our Bosnian marks.

The 65 km long Pelješac Peninsula runs parallel to the coast and belongs to Croatia. A little beyond Neum a large coat of arms with Croatia's distinctive red and white chequer-board is prominently displayed on the hillside just in case anybody forgets. The bay between mainland and peninsula is crowded with oyster and mussel beds.

We entered the Croatian exclave without further formalities. A pretty drive along the Dalmatian coast brought us to Dubrovnik bus station beside the deep water harbour, where two enormous cruise ships were tied up.

Shellfish beds in an inlet
Bistrina Bridge, Croatia

It was raining, so after visiting an ATM to stock up on Croatian kuna we made our way to the taxi rank. As in Sarajevo it was a fixed fare, but at least here there was an official sign saying so. Part of modern Dubrovnik clusters round the harbour while more sits on the wooded slopes of the Lapad peninsula where most of the hotels, including ours, are situated. The Old Town, the honey pot that attracts so many bees, squats on a small headland south of Lapad.

As we checked in the rain changed tentatively into sunshine, so we ventured out to a nearby restaurant, the Magellan, for a late lunch. The menu made it clear we had arrived somewhere new. Instead of grilled meats, burek and ćevapi we were offered pizzas, pastas and risottos.  Most of this coast – though not actually Dubrovnik – was part of the Republic of Venice from the middle ages to the 18th century, so it is unsurprising that Dalmatian and Italian cuisine have many similarities. Had we been in Croatia’s Balkan ‘wing’ rather than its Mediterranean ‘wing’ we would still have been among the grilled meats and stuffed peppers.

On the way down to the Old City

After lunch we walked down to the old town. Old Dubrovnik is a perfectly preserved (or perfectly restored) 17th century city, its massive wall still completely intact. Yugoslavia became an increasingly popular holiday destination in the 1970s and 80s and Dubrovnik was its main attraction. War brought tourism to a shuddering halt but it has since regained and is now surpassing its previous level, which may explain why I could not find a gap in the crowd when trying to photograph Lynne at the Pile gate.

Lynne outside the Pile Gate

The gate has an inner courtyard where a large map charts the impact point of every shell that landed on the old city during the seven month siege in 1991. It also points out, in very large letters, that it was the Serbs and Montenegrins who were to blame. Three buildings were completely destroyed, many sustained severe damage to their roofs and many more suffered more superficial damage. Dubrovnik had not at first been defended as Serbian leader Slobodan Milosević had given an undertaking to respect its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. About a hundred civilians were killed and a couple of hundred soldiers on both sides died before international pressure led to the lifting of the siege. Here, as with Mostar bridge, the loss of human life seems to concern us less than the loss of old buildings - ‘us’ being those members of the human race not directly involved in the conflict – and I find that puzzling.

Placa (or Stradun)
The main street of the Old City, Dubrovnik

Inside it was a little quieter and after admiring the Onofrio Fountain, built in 1438, we walked down the main drag, called either Placa or Stradun, pausing at the church of St Blaise.....

The Church of St Blaise

 .....the patron saint of Dubrovnik.........

Inside the Church of St Blaise

......and then out to the old harbour (not to be confused with the deep water harbour by the bus station).

The harbour, old City

It was a Saturday afternoon and as we walked back, a wedding party processed up the main street, the man nearest the camera is waiving the flag of St Blaise, without which not much happens in Dubrovnik.

Wedding party

Despite the blue sky in the picture we were rained on as we walked the mostly uphill mile back to our hotel.


In the morning the sky was blue and the air was warm, but the forecast sellotaped to the hotel reception desk promised rain for the afternoon. Back down in the old town we bought our tickets and climbed the steps up to the city wall. It is 2½ km all the way round, but there was plenty to see and no need to rush so it took us over 2 hours.

On the steps up to the city wall

I always like looking down on terra cotta tiled roofs. Normally there is a mix of colours, from the bright red of the newest tiles to the mellower colours that come with age and weathering. Here the vast majority of roofs sported shiny red tiles, a legacy of Serb shelling.

Following the walls anticlockwise, as directed, we walked first along the seaward side, pausing to photograph the city streets.....

Placa from the city wall

the roofs......

The roofs of Dubrovnik


Lynne on the wall

.....and views of the coast.

The coast outside the walls

As we approached the harbour end we could see another cruise ship anchored beside an offshore island and a flotilla of small boast bringing the ‘cruisers’ ashore.

Cruise ship anchored off Dubrovnik

The wall is lower around the harbour then rises on the landward side.

The wall rounds the harbour

We had already climbed up and down many steps so when we reached the watchtower Lynne chose not to climb to the top. I left her in the shady entrance, climbed the stairs and took this photograph.

Across Dubrovnik from the watch tower

Lynne walked out along the wall so I could photograph her but I did not see her, indeed I did not look for her as I knew she was in the entrance and out of sight. I received an earful for that when I came down, I should apparently have known what she was going to do. I was almost certainly in the wrong and clearly demonstrated my lack of emotional intelligence by not looking for somebody I did not believe I could see.

Our lengthy circumambulation had largely been conducted in direct sunshine and although it was only eleven o’clock an administration of cold beer was deemed necessary. We found what we required in a shady terrace just outside the Pile Gate. We might have been embarrassed to be drinking beer when two other tables were occupied by people eating breakfast, but concluded they were at fault for getting up too late.

Back inside the gate we intended to visit the Franciscan monastery. They had, according to the guide book, a magnificent cloister, Europe’s third oldest working pharmacy and a small museum of liturgical objects. There was a nominal fee for the (probably resistible) museum, but the rest was free. We soon discovered we had to pay 40 kuna (£5) each to see anything. As we had just spent 70 kuna each to walk round the walls we came over all mean and left. We had, after all, come to see Dubrovnik, not buy it.

Perhaps we were suffering from the ‘just arrived from Bosnia’ effect. Croatians, on average, have less than half the wealth of west Europeans, but the Dubrovnik exclave looks unusually prosperous and prices reflect that. Croatians, however, are three times wealthier than their Bosnian cousins and we found ourselves looking at Croatian prices through Bosnian eyes.

We did visit the Franciscan Church - that was free. Outside it was just another wall along the side of the main street, inside it was seriously ornate with statues of the Virgin Mary and paintings of saints in elaborate marble frames. We watched a Japanese couple staring at it all, clearly bemused.

Inside the Franciscan church

Walking slowly down through the town we found ourselves back at the harbour where a long queue of cruise passengers was waiting for the boats back to their floating hotel. Their visit had been meaninglessly brief.

It was time to go in search of lunch, though given the quantity of restaurants in Dubrovnik ‘search’ is the wrong word. Several clustered around the harbour and more lined the square just the other side of the clock tower, but as we wanted to pay for the food not the view, we ventured into the backstreets. Some are so narrow it would be difficult for two laden donkeys to pass each other, though that precise problem went away some time ago. Any that are a little wider are lined with the chairs and tables of small restaurants.

We only wanted a light lunch, not the full works, and soon found a suitable place. Lynne ordered beef soup with crusty bread and I had some squid lightly dusted with flour and gently fried. My meal came with a substantial pile of chips, leading Lynne to question my commitment to a ‘light’ lunch. Maybe she was right.

In the narrow alley we could not see the morning’s blue sky being overtaken by thick clouds. Only when we emerged onto the wide main street an hour or more later did we realised that rain was imminent.

As we plodded back up the long hill the threat became a reality as the hotel weather forecast was proved right almost to the minute. We soldiered on for a while, but as the rain changed from light to hard and threatened to become torrential we passed a bus shelter and decided it was a good place to stop. We were not alone.

If you wait in a bus shelter long enough a bus will come along, and as it was a No. 4, which we knew went past our hotel, we hopped on board. Dubrovnik buses have a flat fare and it is more expensive to pay on board than at a kiosk but we had no choice. As we had walked a good part of the way before the storm became serious we did not get the best value for our bus ride, and we still received a soaking running the fifty metres from the stop to the hotel. Such is life.
Modern Dubrovnik from the Lapad Peninsula

The rain did not last long and in the late afternoon we took a walk through the streets of Lapad. It is a green and pleasant suburb, though we found little of great interest.

It was beautifully presented - before I messed it up with a knife and fork
Magellan Restaurant, Dubrovnik

We could not be bothered to walk down to the old town again in the evening, so we re-visited the Magellan Restaurant across the road from the hotel. Lynne enjoyed her seafood risotto while my pork in a white sauce with wild mushrooms and roasted vegetables was beautifully presented, perfectly cooked and packed with flavour. It was a dish that would have graced a much more expensive restaurant and made me reassess my earlier feelings about Croatian prices.

The Balkans
Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)

Friday, 25 May 2012

Mostar: Part 3 of The Balkans

Sarajevo to Mostar is only 120km, but the journey took all morning; mountain roads never make for fast travelling. We were on one of the fourteen daily services between the two cities, but the fifty seat bus rarely had more than a dozen passengers.

From Sarajevo to Mostar

It was largely a pleasant journey through green alpine meadows, small towns and smaller villages, the tall thin minarets of mosques incongruous amid the essentially European scenery. Less attractive were the occasional shattered and abandoned farmsteads and the burned out buildings on the outskirts of every village. There was new building too, new houses to replace those lost in a war which passed through over ten years ago, but whose marks were still too clearly visible.

From Sarajevo to Mostar

Road signs were in both Roman and Cyrillic characters. Unlike in Wales where bilingual signs give towns different names in the same alphabet, these were the same names in different alphabets. Like Wales in the 1970s, though, activists had been busy with paint brushes, Мостар having almost universally been painted over.

As we neared our destination the mountains opened out and we drove through an area of vineyards and fruit farms.

We arrived in sunshine. Mostar can be hot, the temperature had been in the mid-thirties the week before and regularly tops forty in July and August, but for us the sun’s warmth was moderated by the rain which had just passed and would soon return.

We trundled our case into town, crossed the Tito Bridge and found our hotel. Our vast room overlooked the Neretva River – fast flowing, deep and green – and on the far side the burned out hulk of another hotel.  It was a typical Mostar view.

The Tito bridge and the burned out hulk of another hotel.
A typical Mostar view

Mostar is the capital of Herzegovina (pronounced with a stressed ‘go-veen’, not a short ‘govv-vinn’).  Throughout the Sarajevo posts I have referred to the country as Bosnia, but it is, of course, Bosnia and Herzegovina, BiH for short. Although Yugoslavia fractured into more parts than most people knew it had (7 in total, though Serbia has yet to recognise the independence of Kosovo) the one split that never happened and was never suggested was between Bosnia and Herzegovina. Herzegovina has been an integral part of Bosnia as long as there has been a Bosnia, or indeed a Herzegovina. BiH remains split between the two ‘entities’ of the 1995 Dayton accord (the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska) but there is no meaningful division between Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Mostar’s main attraction is the old bridge, indeed Mostar means ‘bridge keeper’. We walked down the pedestrian street on the left bank of the Neretva and into Kujundžiluk – Goldsmith’s Street – which is the heart of the old town and leads up to the bridge. Kujundžiluk no longer sells much gold, though if you need a fridge magnet, a Bosnian football shirt or a small model of the bridge, this is the place to be. Mostar is perfect day-trip distance from Dubrovnik which explains why Kujundžiluk becomes very crowded in the afternoons and why all prices are quoted in euros, Bosnian marks and Croatian kuna (in that order).

Kujundžiluk, Mostar
Very busy in the early afternoon

The old bridge, the Stari Most, was commissioned in 1557 by the Ottoman Emperor Suleyman the Magnificent to replace the wobbly suspension bridge that had been frightening Ottoman traders for over a century. Finished in 1566 it was a perfect arc of a circle, a ‘petrified moon’, gliding gracefully across the Neretva gorge between two medieval towers. An architectural and engineering masterpiece, the bridge survived over four hundred years and withstood two world wars before being destroyed in November 1993. The current bridge was built in 2004 to the same design, with stone from the same quarry and using Ottoman building techniques wherever practical. The new bridge is undoubtedly beautiful, but the stone lacks the mellow weathered look of the surrounding towers. In time it will become indistinguishable from the old one, but it can never be more than a replacement.

Mostar bridge

Beyond the bridge a side stream enters the Neretva down its own small gorge. The area around the confluence is much quieter than Kujundžiluk but is perhaps the most scenic part of the town.

Beyond the Stari Most

The Kriva Ćuprija (Crooked Bridge) over the side stream is similar to the Stari Most but much smaller. It was built in 1558, allegedly as a practice for the bigger bridge. Weakened by war-time shelling it was washed away by floods in 1999. The government of small but wealthy Luxembourg financed the rebuilding of the small but beautiful bridge.

The Crooked bridge

At night the day trippers return to Dubrovnik, those on Balkan Coach tours have meals provided in their hotels, which leaves the old town to the locals and the ‘independents’. We had dinner at Sadrvan, a restaurant between the two bridges. Sitting outside - it was just warm enough - I resorted to the Balkan staples of vegetables stuffed with minced beef, while Lynne went for the Mostar speciality, Neretva trout. She had two of them, simply grilled and served with chard (a popular vegetable in Bosnia) and boiled potatoes. They were, she said, excellent.

Neretva trout
Sadrvan Restaurant, Mostar

Before the war the city’s population was, roughly, 20% Serb, 40% Bosniak and 40% Croat. Serb forces were repulsed after a siege during which the Yugoslavian National army destroyed the Catholic Cathedral, the Franciscan monastery, the bishop’s palace with its valuable library, and 14 mosques. After they had gone the Croats responded with true Christian spirit, demolishing an Orthodox monastery and three churches, including the cathedral.

Although Bosniaks and Croats mostly co-operated, there were Croatian elements who favoured a Bosnian Croat republic along on the lines of the Republika Srpska. This idea never gained wide acceptance, but caused serious problems in Mostar.  Bosniaks were expelled from Croat areas on the west bank of the Neretva, many fleeing to the Muslim east bank. The Bosniaks held onto a thin strip of land on the west bank and a front line developed to the west of that. From 1992 to the end of the war the two sides periodically lobbed shells at each other. All Mostar’s bridges were destroyed, the old bridge being targeted by Croatian artillery in November 1993 in an act of wanton vandalism*. All but one of the 13 Ottoman era mosques that survived the Serb onslaught were also destroyed.

The old town at night

The old town was reduced to rubble and films of the time show bewildered looking people moving through a landscape that resembled Dresden in 1945.

In the morning we walked along the front line; the nearest point being only 50m from our hotel. The buildings were in many different states of repair. In one the ground floor had been fully restored and was serving as a fast food restaurant while above it was burnt out ruins.

A fast food restaurant on the ground floor....
The former front line, Mostar

In a line of apartment blocks three had been restored (courtesy of the Danish government) while the fourth was still waiting.

Apartment blocks, some restored, some waiting
The former front line, Mostar

People were living in parts of the seriously damaged block.

Occupied war damaged apartment blocks
The former fron line, Mostar

Meanwhile, other buildings were being reclaimed by nature.

Buildings being reclaimed by nature
The former front line, Mostar

There were signs of a new Mostar rising from the ashes. The trouble with the Mepas Mall is that it could be anywhere. I suppose its existence is good for the local economy and it should therefore be welcomed, but neither of us felt the least desire to go in and have a look.

The Mepas Mall, Mostar

There are also signs of the best of the old Mostar recovering. The central high school had been badly damaged but the handsome building has now been fully restored. The school was holding an international dance festival while we there.

Central High School
We finished our front line walk at the rebuilt Franciscan church, its tall thin campanile an obvious challenge to the minarets across the river. The church is not open to the public but as we arrived the door opened and a party of Italian pilgrims emerged. We thought there was just a few, but like a tsunami they kept on coming until dozens of them were eddying around outside the church, each one sporting a red baseball cap and a badge of the Virgin Mary surrounded by clouds.

The church of the Franciscan Monastery

We smiled at the Franciscan monk by the door. He smiled back. ‘Cinque minuti,’ he said, standing aside for us. Whether he thought we were Italian too, or just addressed everybody in Italian as a matter of course we had no idea.

Five minutes was enough. Although the exterior is finished the church is a concrete shell. Inside, there is an altar at the front, the Stations of the Cross round the side, and a great deal of gloomy space.

We thanked the genial monk and walked on towards the bridge. We soon caught up with the Italians -it takes a while to get a group that size across a busy road. The object of their pilgrimage was Medjugorje, some 25 km away where, in 1981, the Virgin Mary appeared to six children. She allegedly appeared daily for several years and still communicates on a monthly basis with two of the visionaries. The Catholic Church is officially non-committal and unofficially sceptical, but that has not stopped Medjugorje becoming the third  most visited apparition site in Europe (after Lourdes and Fatima) receiving over a million pilgrims a year.  In the second Sarajevo post I admitted to not understanding the military mind, now I have to admit to similar problems with the religious mind. I find it difficult to comprehend how rational grown-ups can believe this.

When we reached the bridge a man was standing on the parapet threatening to jump. He was not, apparently, suicidal but a member of the Mostar bridge divers club. Since 1664 (the date of the first recorded plunge) the young men of Mostar have been demonstrating (and temporarily shrivelling) their manhood by diving or jumping from the bridge into the cold, fast flowing river 21m below. There is a diving competition in July, but generally the divers dive and jumpers jump when a sufficient quantity of marks have been placed in the plastic bucket carried by the diver’s mate. A large group of Italian pilgrims was just what was required to drum up the necessary cash. I dropped in our contribution and we watched as the man jumped from the bridge and plummeted downwards. The Neretva at Mostar is on the cusp between mountain stream and regular river. It is deep, which makes the jump safer, but looks extremely cold. Once he resurfaced, the jumper wasted no time in getting himself out of the water.
The jumper jumps
The new Old Bridge, Mostar

We popped into a small shop beside the bridge to buy some scented soap as gifts to take home. The shopkeeper asked where we came from, and then said, ‘I want to thank you so very, very much.’ We probably looked surprised, such heartfelt thanks seemed an over-reaction to a 6 euro purchase. ‘Great Britain was the first to open its doors to the Bosnian refugees, you helped us very, very much,’ he explained. I am glad we did though I was not aware of it at the time and can hardly claim any credit. It makes a change, though, from ‘you people put my grandfather in jail.’ I decline to take the blame for that, too.

We wandered back down Kujundžiluk to the pedestrian street beyond and past Karađozbeg Mosque.

Karađozbeg Mosque, Mostar

Built in 1557, the war left it with a gaping hole in the dome and the stump of a minaret. It is now fully restored and open to worshippers and anyone else who wishes to pop in.

Inside the Karađozbeg Mosque

From there we walked up to the main street through the Muslim quarter, which had almost as many damaged buildings as the front line......

The main street on the east bank of the Neretva

... and then to the Musilbegović House, now a boutique hotel, but in the 18th century the house of an important Ottoman family.

Inside the Musilbegović House

We returned to the main street for lunch. A tiny café with a mainly local clientele served us burek, pellets of minced beef encased in a long tube of filo pastry wound round like a Cumberland sausage. It was pleasant enough, if a bit stodgy, but cost little and we washed it down with the cheapest half litre of beer we found in Bosnia. Pivo Točeno, draft beer, was one of the first (and few) phrases of Bosnian I mastered (who’d a thunk it?). The local language used to be called Serbo-Croat but these days they like to think of Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian as being separate languages, though the differ as much as the English of London, Birmingham and Liverpool.

Working steadily through a burek

There is room for only a thin slice of town on the east bank between the river and the mountains. We walked uphill and under the by-pass before finding a footpath up to the site of the Orthodox Cathedral. There was, we had read, a fine view of Mostar from the ruins; what we did not know was that the reconstruction of the cathedral was in full swing.

Reconstructing the Orthodox Cathedral

Walking a little further up the hill we found a small Orthodox chapel, one of the few religious buildings in Mostar to be largely undamaged by the war – though some of the work on the tiny bell tower looks suspiciously new.

The small chapel above the cathedral

Several restaurants occupy the the sites of the old mills along the right bank of the river, and in the evening we allowed ourselves to be captured by a young lady touting for the Bella Vista Restaurant. Unoriginal as the name might be, it had the virtue of truth. After a day of sunshine and showers it was warm enough to sit on their terrace with fine views of the bridge....

A restaurant table with a view
Bella Vista, Mostar

...and the floodlit walls of the old town.

The old town, Mostar

It was my turn to eat trout – only one, but it was big - while Lynne chose grilled baby squids. Local open wine comes by the litre or half litre. We toyed with the idea of half a litre, but after several nanoseconds consideration decided on a whole one. Clean, fresh and well balanced, if not particularly fruity, it was a perfect accompaniment to the food. We finished with baklava. Given the quality of the food and the surroundings it should have been expensive, but Bosnia is generally cheap and the shortage of tourists in the evening helps keep the price down to a level our friend Hilary would call ‘bargainous’.

I was feeling mellow but the trout felt gutted

Good food and ample drink in beautiful surroundings give me a deep feeling of contentment and a rosy view of the world. I know I was sitting in a town that only fifteen years before had been largely rubble, but I desperately want to see that as an aberration. I really do want to believe that humans are essentially good; Mostar may have seen unimaginable horror, but now it is a city of hope..

Another view of that bridge
The following morning we made our way back to the bus station and set off for Dubrovnik. We were leaving a town that is beautiful, but where it is never possible to ignore the recent past. All three communities know that just a few years ago their neighbours were trying to kill them. It will take another decade to clear the war’s physical damage, it might take longer to heal the mental scars.

and one more, just to finish

The Bella Vista allowed this narrative to finish on a positive note, but two positive notes are better than one, so I will also mention the ice cream stall just across the bridge from Kujundžiluk. For the princely sum of 1 mark (40p), they sell some of the best ice-cream anywhere. We tried four flavours, I did not keep a note of them but I know I had pistachio because I always do, and each one was special. No one would go all the way to Mostar just to eat ice-cream, but having got there no one should leave without trying it.

*There was little strategic justification for the destruction. Harvard academic Andras Riedlmayer described it as an act of "killing memory", in which evidence of a shared cultural heritage and peaceful co-existence was deliberately destroyed.

The Balkans
Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)