Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Balkan Trip, Spring Break, March 2009: Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia

After school on Thursday, March 19th, we pack up our rental car with friends Doug and Mary Jo and hit the road. That night's destination is Budva, Montenegro, where we stay at the same home of private apartments as we did two spring breaks ago (see earlier posts). After a yummy seafood dinner in the old town and a warm bed we wake up the next morning and continue on up the coast. The day is absolutely frigid, with freezing rain and wind that blows our umbrellas out, so we don't linger long in Kotor (again, see earlier posts) but decide to keep driving. The clouds eventually lift some, and we stop to take in the breathtaking views in the Bay of Kotorska.

The first tiny island behind us (above) is home to the Benedictine Monastery of St. George, where many sea captains have found their eternal homes. The islet to the right of that holds "Our Lady of the Rock", a little chapel from the early 1600's dedicated to the virgin Mary. The island itself is man-made out of the carcasses of old ships, and is reinforced with stone.

Next destination: Dubrovnik, Croatia. We follow the coast road but then veer off towards the mountains. After about an hour of driving the road begins to narrow and we begin to question our navigational skills. I had always heard the road to Dubrovnik is wide and welcoming and the road we are on is anything but that. We continue driving until we hit snow. It's time to turn around. Here, Travis speaks for us all:

Back down the mountain, we hug the coast road until the border of Montenegro and Croatia. We leave Montenegro, stamped and ready for the next country, but are told at the Croatia border we can't enter without the proper insurance card for our car. We must have a "Green Card", the card we have isn't good enough for them. We are told to wait two hours for the lady to come, take our 75 euros, and issue us the proper card. We're hungry. In hopes that she will wait for us, we turn around to seek food back in Montenegro. At that border, we are told again we can't enter due to lack of sacred "green card". But we just came from Montenegro! we tell them. A kind English-speaking tour guide works it out for us and we're allowed passage. When we finally return to the Croatian border, the lady is there, takes only 65 euros, and we break on through to the other side, heading for Dubrovnik.

DUBROVNIK: The view of the old town was more than could be imagined or captured by any old photo:

What is incredible to me is how the old city of Dubrovnik is still standing, all fortified, staunchly standing against time and war and modernity. Not that it hasn't been affected in some way by all three, but it truly is a visit back in time, despite all the tourist shops, cafes, and cozy restaurants. Below are views from on top of the city walls:

One of the highlights is getting to see Angie and her group of IU students! We hang out with them some in the old city, and then go with Doug and Mary Jo for a cozy seafood lunch.

After lunch we head back up the coast toward Split, Croatia, a large seaside town on the Adriatric with a charming old city. It is dark when we arrive so we hook up with a nice man renting out rooms in his home. We turn on the heat and head out for a short walk towards "the best restaurant in town" we are told. Some of us aren't so hungry and decide to get the soup. It is a cup of broth. Amy loves her pasta though.

In the morning we head to the old town and have coffee and pastries in the sunshine in a lovely piazza. Travis makes some friends.

Next we stroll around the outside remnants of Diocletian's Palace, the palace where a famous Roman emperorer retired. He was known for his intense persecution of Christians. Ironically, the mausoleum built for him has been turned into a Christian cathedral. Weird. Mass was going on so we only peek inside the doors. I (Amy) love how the hotels, cafes and shops flowed through and around the palace; the union of old and new.

From Split it is onto Bosnia, the highlight of our trip. On the way out of Croatia, we stop in the mountains for a quick lunch of 1/2 kilo of lamb, green salad, and more broth and bread.

The drive through tunnels cutting into mountains and tiny Bosnian towns is filled with the anticipation of the history and beauty we will encounter, and when we reach the exquisite old town of Mostar, Bosnia, that anticipation is fully realized. Mostar was hit pretty hard during the war in the early nineties, and it's claim to fame, an old Ottoman bridge (Mostar means "old bridge"), was completely destroyed. Many of the buildings in the old and new towns are riddled with bullet holes and shelling, which makes this town sobering, but unforgettable. There is a charm and energy however that is alluring, and makes it hard to leave.

The old city in Mostar and the famous bridge and walking streets:

That afternoon we drive onto Sarajevo, arriving around 8:30 at night. We had lingered longer in Mostar than had planned and had decided to forego meeting our Sarajevo friends at a meeting place and just try to find their house on our own. We must have asked 15 people and turned around a multitude of times before we end up at the house. Our friends give us a graciously warm welcome despite our lateness, feed us, and put us to sleep. The next morning, we visit the international school where our friends work and then head to the old town. Again, there are many reminders of the war along the way:

To me (Amy) the city of Sarajevo feels somber and quiet, despite the traffic and crowds of people, but maybe that is me transferring my own mood, my own feelings of its history onto the city itself. And then again, the weather is gray. I like that people just go about their business; not hassling you in the old town shops...the shopkeepers are simply there, friendly and available. The shop and cafe-lined cobblestone streets are beautiful.

I could spend days in this city.

But it is time to head home.

We leave Sarajevo after lunch on Monday and drive straight through the night until we reach Tirana. I don't know what we are thinking, I guess the trip is just over. 13 hours through dark and windy mountain roads and cities with names written only in cyrilic (good thing Travis and I can read them!). By the looks of things, we could be anywhere. We could be in Ohio. I keep reminding everyone in the car that we are in Bosnia. Hey guys, we're driving through the mountains in Bosnia. Hey guys, we just spent the night in Sarajevo. On one of these roads, just at dusk, a castle, looming on a far away rock, comes into view and reminds us that we are not, in fact, in Ohio. We are in the Balkans. A lone man stands at the top of this castle and stretches, looking out toward the sunset, king of the world.