Spring in the Balkans; 5 cities and 3 countries
Don’t they say take-off and landing are the most important times of flying?
Its where my safety lens becomes heightened to a real mode of super anxiety, vulnerability and the acceptance of whatever happens, happens.
After watching "Sully”, the Hudson river crash incident, I never underestimate the importance of paying attention to safety procedures even when I fly for the umpteenth time.
I think I am developing a phobia for flying. To think I have spent an incredible amount of my adult life on air and in planes makes it even more frightening.
So there, we take-off at Gatwick North Terminals, soared over Holland, Belgium, Germany, and Austria flying 35000 feet above sea level as we made our way towards the Adriatic Sea to eventually land in Dubrovnik. It was an easterly to southerly flight path…
I never do flight paths when I write but I am really beginning to swing into all things geography each time I travel.
Flight schedule was under 2hrs 30mins, as we make our way for descent at 10:15 am south east from Dubrovnik.
We arrived on schedule to the cosy and beautiful warmth of spring accompanied with light showers! Croatia was all pristine waters, stretching off its coastline across Dalmatian borders and it struck me as one of the most breath-taking beauties in Europe. This ancient city is known for its historic walls and sites, fishing villages, traditional fine Dalmatian and Bosnian dishes, mountain sky high views, and great weather so I knew this was going to be a memorable Spring escape.
So there we were, it’s the first time I had ever had my name held in an airport for collection, boldy written on an ipad. I whispered to Neil, “it seems like we have been picked up in style.
An e-class”. Fancy sleek Mercedes Benz, eh?
Usually, I tend to self-navigate my way from airports to destinations or just book a taxi upon arrival. I rarely pre-arrange pickups as I genuinely love the process of finding my way to my hotels. Its part of the adventure and the exploration. I am not a tourist, I am a traveller.
The drive from the airport was refreshing with great views. There was something so tasteful about the buildings and houses, mostly built with white washed limestone and coral.
Dubrovnik has to be on the list of one of the cleanest cities I have ever seen after the obvious purity of the Scandinavians.
London and New York is pure filth- air, land and water! Eurgh! Half an hour drive later to Hotel Neptun, a chain of 5 hotels, we were met and greeted warmly as our luggage was received by concierge to our sea view room.
After a quick complimentary welcome drink at the pool bar and a wander round the hotel, we settle for a quick nap, freshened up before exploring.
We take what I described as a breath-taking walk through the Promenade to the Lopad. The coastal lines and the scenery was just so bloody refreshing.
Just around 7:30pm, we head for Dinner at the Komin Restaurant, a 4 star beautiful traditional Dalmatian restaurant. Located in a green moules park in Babin Tuk, the restaurant was decorated in a vintage-medieval style, adorned with ironwork, woodwork, not without a fireplace and center-piece firestone coal grill. It had a real rustic, woody feel and we found the fish pates and the sea food platter very authentic and top end. Of course not without some locally made Croatian Dingač wine.
This quality, traditional local restaurant tucked away behind the big hotels on Babin Kuk, Komin accentuated by an offering of succulent meats (traditionally prepared with hot coals), fresh fish, and plenty of shellfish as starters. Dingač, Babić and Pošip among the wines was soon to become my fave restaurant for Dalmatian cuisine.
Montenegro; Yes we did a bit of country hopping!
A country of black mountains as the name implies.
I saw picturesque villages, beautiful towns with a number of attractions, endless duty free shops of liquors, fine wines, ham and other cold cuts. I thrived in culture in this country.
So the next day, we were picked up at the hotel bright and early after breakfast for a planned day trip to Montenegro.
As we board the coach, our tour guide explains that we will travel towards the most southerly part of Dubrovnik into Croatian check points of the border crossings.
I double check that we have our passports. As Montenegro is not part of the EU. Our passports will most likely get stamped. The tour guide then advises that we may want to turn our phones off as not to accumulate roaming charges.
So we head to the Bay of Kotor where we stopped for a quick coffee by the harbour and subsequently made our way to Budva a more coastal town; one known for beach culture and experiences. Budva is rich in culture, has a fair number of churches, museums and other tourist attractions.
After taking in the scenic views of the Bay of Kotor and the mountain Lochen, we head to Budva.
Beauty of Montenegro
As we drove through the borders, we were greeted with terrific views of snowy mountains. One of the beauties Montenegro is known for is a famous artistic festival called Mimosa which holds between Jan-Feb annually. It promotes the mimosa yellow flowers which tend to bloom in the winter.
Yellow flowers - season of sport tournaments, music festivals, food and wine- what could be more divine?
Thinking of mimosas now- I want to drink one! The coastal lines and mountains form the beauty of this country. It made me reflect on the current climate of the former unions and how they existed these socialist republics where borders never existed within the ex-Yugoslavia. Montenegro had always stayed within the same union as Serbia. I also wondered if the separation never existed, whether the union may have turned out stronger to be a super power- like the West.
Who knows? I was made to understand that the languages across the union states are widely understood by all the citizens and they could each identify where each other came from. For example the way we identify English speaking people would vary from their accents whether they were Texan, Indian, Scottish, Canadian or African. I found this quite fascinating.
Most people are Montenegrin. Around 28% of Serbians and a small % are Croatians, Russians, and Albanians. The main currency used is €. But they would accept the Croatian Kuna. Most people are members of the Serb or Montenegro orthodox. This was driven by a historical legacy of competition over supremacy and land ownership. Their economy significantly relies on the development of tourism and industry and perhaps iron and aluminium making. There are a number of tin factories situated specifically in the north. But tourism is seasonal and we were weren’t visiting in ‘season’.
As we drove through settlements and new builds, I wondered how tourism may have influenced the period of the 70s and the impact on ex-Yugoslavia. The building industry grew around the Adriatic - immigrants started settling there. Many Russians are known to have invested in beach front and coastal properties in Montenegro.
We drove past mussel farms – oh yes they eat shed loads of mussels. But I noticed these farms were deliberately positioned closer to the roads to manage the disruption of the sea tides. The ferries do a number of crossings across the bays.
We do a brief stopover at the 2 famous islands - views of the lighthouse was incredibly breath-taking. I noticed many side streets in Montenegro as we walked passed the Tivet Bay and surrounding walls. There was the massive cruise ship which had arrived that morning and I knew that the town was going to be packed with tourists. Budva is not as touristy as Kotor. The walls are a bit more manicured and can be quieter off season with lots of shops closed.
So we left Kotor at 1.30 and arrived Budva at 2.15. We walked through the promenade to the old town for some fresh sea food for lunch. The marina had a number of yachts and sail boats. It was very picturesque. We had lunch at the Fisherman’s Pub by the promenade.
I ate lots of seafood as I beamed away with joy, excited as a little girl with a new pony while Neil watched me and shook his head with love.
As we departed Budva, I noticed on the map that further south east on the borders of Montenegro was Albania. I know Albania is not known to have a high level of tourism as one can argue there is nothing worth putting a finger on considering their history around secrecy and communism. I once considered it a ‘European North Korea’ but I am pleased that there seems to be free movement now. and believe it or not- its becoming a destination for young tourists looking to party on beaches.
Parts of Albania is known for its lovely secluded fine beaches- google the Albanian Riviera. It is proper cheap, stunning scenery - the sun shining most times, you have got fine beaches and an affordable destination, all in one.
Yes, thank me later.
Back to Dubrovnik; Oh what a haven; So parts of Dubrovnik on the outskirts after the port was destroyed during the Balkan war and rebuilt almost immediately. I could still find traces of war ruins and derelicts specifically around us and it made me a little sad on reflection; especially knowing it was war between the Serbs and the Croatian Army. Where was the neighbourliness?
The next day, we walked the entire old town and the historic walls. Absolutely, breath-taking. I was proper knackered but determined to climb the tower too.
After a hot but windy day on the top of the walls, we settle for some ice cream under the orange tree. I love orange trees. It reminds me of a sense of calm and shade I feel when I visit my father in his country home in Nigeria. He has a number of orange trees. Orange trees remind me of Southern Spain and my father’s house.
Drink’o clock? We head for the Pub for a pint of refreshment before finishing off at a local Dalmatian restaurant for dinner.
…And that my friends, was the perfect end to a beautiful day.
Bosnia; a matter of spontaneity
Bosnia was not in the plan originally. We just made a joint decision to fill up our days and do our 3rd country hop.
After being picked up at our hotel for 8:00 am, before doing the rounds – it was a little smaller crowd and a much cozier set up compared to the Montenegrin tours- we make our way to the border not before taking one of those short road trip power naps.
I woke up and the first thing I spot is this arboretum called the Trsteno, a region of trees. It dates to the 15th C when the House of Gozze would ask captains of the ships to bring back seeds to plant from their numerous travel jaunts. Today those trees are still standing tall and are absolutely magnificent. I find it incredibly fascinating. What was weird about this day trip was the fact that we had to cross the border 3 freaking times. We drove past the Croatian peninsula and a wall which was built to protect the enemy from stealing salt during the war. The area is famous to have the best oysters in the world. Why can’t I just move here? We crossed the first border at 8.46am. A coffee break follows at 8.50 at a hotel called Jadran. We drive towards the Neretva River, an area known for its mandarin plantations and farms. It’s famous for the exporting tons of mandarins to Russia. The river connects to the Adriatic Sea. But what struck me was the number of road side wine tasking kiosks within every quarter of a mile we drove.
And because I am really random, I couldn’t help but notice – ‘Tommy Supermarket’ seems to be a supermarket chain across the former union. It’s my dad’s and brother’s name so it did strike me each time it was boldly written across the streets.
I wondered why "Tommy".
Mostar- a fusion of religions- Christians and Muslims who are highly spiritual and actively seeking solace in that spirituality as a result of the effect of war they have experienced.
The war monument of the Old Bridge – the main reason we decided to visit…
The Old Bridge, Stari Most stood for 427 years from inception until it was destroyed in 1993 during the Croatian-Bosnian war. The bridge was subsequently rebuilt, eastern model, Ottoman style -very much like styles in Turkey and Morocco.
On our road trip, we drive past what was called the historic ottoman towns.
There is a whole lot of history linked to the ceding of Dalmatian islands linking to the division of the Ottoman and the Venetian Empire.
Apparently, post Ottoman era, there were historic records that reported Catholics paid more tax compared to Muslims and therefore more Catholics began converting to Muslims.
Money changes values, trust me. Anyway, we drove past the last town of Croatia, headed past the Metkovic’ border crossing before entering Bosnia. I asked what currency was used and whether they would take euro or the Kuna but I was told they use the ‘Bosnian Mark’ for currency. As my buh and I wandered around the town, we felt an immediate sense of shell shock and the impact of war on this nation and its people. When we spoke to the locals, we could see in their eyes the suffering and the effects of trauma, a sense of loss and damage and some of them welled up speaking about watching their family homes which they built from nothing, burn to the ground.
My sense of gratitude heightened as I may never know what its like to be a victim of war but one thing I know (especially as my father is a surviving veteran from a civil war) is that if I had any control over these decisions, I would always choose peace and love over war.
Anyway we wandered our way to Medugorje (meaning between mountains) Its a town located in Herzegovina and known famously as a Catholic pilgrimage site. It attracts millions of tourists each year after the story of 6 kids who were tortured following claims that they saw the Virgin Mary in 1981 and continue to see them till present.
Historically, the town used to be the poorest village in the area but obviously, this is no longer the case as many Irish and Italians are investing in property in this town - coupled with the significant flow of tourists each year.
I remember reading about this by the Pope – see article
Anyway, we ended up having lunch consisting of local Bosnian cuisine at restoran labirint overlooking the old bridge and the river as we reflected on the opportunity life has presented us to see this iconic site and the listed UNESCO heritage city in Mostar.
The next day was our last day. It was a chilled out day in Dubrovnik, wandering around town with no sense of time or plan, eating fresh sea food, popping in and out of shops and bars, celebrating our lives over Fortnum and Mason champagne seeing it was someone’s birthday trip.
A trip which had so much wealth embedded in one experience living through travel, culture, food, love (and war).
The entire experience as always was an education.
To the Balkans!!! To the Balkans!!!