I had an early start on my second morning in Dubrovnik but I had time to have a quick look around the old city which was beautiful in the morning light and oh so peaceful without all the tourists!
That was until I headed to the meeting place for my tour! All the tour buses and transfers met there around the same time so it was a little crazy – the buses and tour people didn’t have names or signs so everyone just stood around waiting to be called. Thankfully it actually all went way more efficiently that I had anticipated and even better, they were on time. First 24 hours in Croatia had led me to expect nothing less lol.
What a day it was – 10 hours, 6 border crossing and 2 countries 🤔. And so, to my first visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Given that all the day trips left the city around the same time, I left Dubrovnik with some apprehension about how long all the border crossing were going to take!
As we left the city, we drove up the beautiful coastline, flanked by many islands – did you know Croatia has over 1000 Islands along its coast. (No wonder it is a popular destination for sailing holidays). I wish there were stops to take photos but I guess we were in a mad dash to the border – one of the biggest downsides for me of organised tours is having no flexibility to stop where you want (and of course spending so long on a bus!). I also always want to sleep on buses but can’t because I am worried I will miss something.
As we continued around the coast, we passed by the Croatian city of Ston, also known as the City of Salt. The city is surrounded by thick stone walls 5 kilometres long, built in the 15th century to protect a precious commodity – salt! They have been harvesting salt there for over 4000 years, making it the oldest active salt pan in the world. Incredibly, at the peak of its success, 1kg was equal in value to 1kg of gold, hence the reason for those strong defences.
But I digress, this blog is supposed to be about BiH isn’t it?? Let me start with the reason for so many border crossings. I was completely unaware of this, but you cannot drive the coastline of Croatia, without having to cross in to BiH (for 20km) before crossing back into Croatia.
How on earth did this happen I hear you ask (or not, but I will tell you anyway lol). For that story, you have to go back to when Dubrovnik was an independent state and the entire coastal region was called Dalmatia (yes, where the spotted dogs originate from). When the Great Turkish war broke out in 1683 the Independent State of Dubrovnik found itself in the middle of war that had nothing to do with it, so in order to shield itself from attack, it cut itself off from the rest of Dalmatia by giving a small piece of land (an area known as Nuem) to the Ottoman Empire (which controlled what is now BiH).
The plan actually worked but jump forward 400+ years when Yugoslavia broke up, this piece of land remained part of BiH, causing the issues we see today. On the Croatian side, the border staff review all passports when exiting and entering, whilst on the B&H they were far more relaxed but I can only imagine the monster traffic jams in the peak tourist season despite the efficiency!
Since 2007, the Croatian Government have been building a bridge from part of a Croatian peninsula to point on the mainland (a distance of only 2.4km) so Croatian’s and travellers alike can avoid going through all the border crossings when wanting to travel through the country! It was supposed to be finished in 2-3 years but the money disappeared! More recently they have now given the contract to a Chinese firm along with some EU money (80% of the cost) so everyone lives in hope this time the bridge will be completed. If you look closely, you can actually see the start of the bridge in the distance in the photo below.
A slightly odd and unrelated observation was the love for Latin music – buses and shops are more often than not pumping out reggaeton lol. I could close my eyes and transport myself back to Colombia where I was this time last year!
The first border crossing in to BiH only took around 15 minutes. The guide collected all the passports so we just needed to wait on the bus in Neum (hence the name of the Neum corridor) and once through we stopped at a café/restaurant for snacks and toilets. Unfortunately, all the tour buses stop as same place so there was the expected massive queue for toilets and little then time for coffee 🤦🏻♀️.
My first impression of BiH was of people smoking inside WTF 🙅🏻♀️ and lots of people were smoking (though I have noticed it is still a fairly popular habit in Europe)! Also, it is important to note, the coffee was not good – I would not have missed out on much if I had not rushed so much in the bathroom 😂. That said, the sun was out and it was warm and there was a beautiful view over town (and out to the beginnings of the bridge). I would not be surprised if this town is sabotaging the bridge build as it will lose a whole lot of business when buses don’t need to go through it!
The next border crossing was even quicker than the first and we were then back in Croatia! From here we left the coast and drove inland and past vineyards (and from my dinner the night before, I had come to the conclusion that Croatian wine is pretty good) and orchards growing mandarins, oranges and tomatoes. Apparently, the gastronomic speciality in the area is eels and frogs brodet (or stew). I will pass on that!
The 3rd and final border for the morning was easier but took slightly longer and I was glad I brought my kindle with me to pass the time whilst waiting at the border. Finally, by 10.30 we were in BiH for the second time that morning 👍🏻. As we were leaving the EU, I had to turn off my mobile roaming on my phone. Over the last few months I have got so used to just using my phone as normal in Europe, but outside of the EU roaming chargers are GBP6 per mb so definitely not worth making the mistake of mindless scrolling! (We can kiss goodbye to that little perk at some point in the future when the UK finally leaves the EU!! I bet those who voted to leave did not think about wanting to stream their football whilst on their summer holiday in the south of Spain! (excuse the ever so slight stereotyping there 👍🏻😂)
BiH’s history is as interesting and if possible, even more complex than that of it’s neighbour Croatia. Settlements in BiH date back to the Neolithic age with a Celtic migration to the region in 4th century BC. Since then, they have been part of the Western Roman Empire, ruled by Ostrogoths, Alans and then Huns (I am going to have to do a lot more reading to understand who all of these people are). It was part of the Byzantine Empire and then overwhelmed by the Slavs, all before the 7th century and it was during that time the tribes of Serbs and Croats are first noted.
Subsequent centuries find them under the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire – that saw the end of the Kingdom of Bosnia in 1463. 4 centuries under Ottoman rule left behind an obvious Turkish link in the BiH we see today, in its architecture, religion and food and it led to the emergence of a native Slavic speaking Muslim community. Apparently when the Ottoman Empire took power, much of population were Christian. Christians were taxed more than the Muslims (who had other benefits as well) so many of the citizens converted to Islam to avoid becoming second class citizens.
Next came the Austro-Hungarians until the end of WWI when It joined the King of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (subsequently called Yugoslavia) along with its neighbour Croatia.
The first stop back in BiH for the second time was the Kravica waterfalls – according to the pamphlet they give out it was ‘created by the flow of the tuff surrounded Trebizat river’ 🤔. It goes on to say it is an ‘anatural phenomenon and it’s under the country’s protection as a natural rarity’. You have to love these translations 😂 I believe it is also important to note that you cannot perform any “religious rites” in the water!
The waterfalls are between 26-28m tall and use to provide power to many mills for rolling cloth that used to surround the waterfalls and lake. It was beautiful and peaceful and there was even a little blue sky but as with Dubrovnik, I can image it is horribly crowded in the summer.
BiH is made up of two regions – Bosnia and Hercegovina (go figure), on this trip we only stayed in the Hercegovina region in the southern corner of the country. Despite that, the citizens of BiH are all Bosnians (not to be confused with Bosniaks). The majority of the population then fall in to three ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, along side which there are three main religions – Islam, Serbian Orthodox and Catholic.
The city of Mostar was the main stop for the day and the Turkish influence was quite apparent here. The city is surrounded by hills/ mountains and apparently it gets very hot in the summer!
We met up with a local guide who took us through the beautiful old city (or in most cases, not so old city). Mostar was a fighting hotspot during the war in the 90’s and many of the historic sites were destroyed (also 70% of the infrastructure) and many have been rebuilt. There are still a number of buildings around the city that are pockmarked with bullet holes, and others that have not been rebuilt – apparently this is purely because the owners never returned, so they have just been left as they were.
One of the main Government building has also not been repaired. Our local guide told us that the Government say they don’t have money to repair it (or knock it down and rebuild) but of course they have money to drive nice cars and live in nice houses! I think we can all agree; this is not a problem unique to BiH.
To align with the three main ethnic groups, the country has a unique Presidency with 3 members (one from each of the three main ethnic groups). They serve a 4-year term as collective head of state with one member designated as Chairperson, a role that is rotated twice around the three members every 8 months! Phew!
Worse than the physical damage the city was subjected to, the horrors culminating with the Srebrenica massacre, where more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered in July 1995 as part of an ethnic cleansing by the Bosnian Serb army. Not to lessen the horrors of that event, the Bosniak and Bosnian Croat forces also committed war crimes against civilians from different ethnic groups, though on a smaller scale. War is a truly horrid thing.
Given such a difficult recent history, the groups appear to get on relatively well these days and live and work side by side.
Further significance of the 3 ethnic groups are reflected in the flag with 3 points of the triangle representing the three ethnic groups (apparently the colours being that of the EU is apparently no coincidence as it shows their willingness to join) and the three official languages that appear on road signs, packaging etc.
All the former countries in Yugoslavia used to speak the same Serbo Croat language and as a result, people of the individual countries still speak almost the same language so the Croat guide could speak to our BiH guide, each in their own language without problem.
One of the most significant landmarks of the city is the “Old Bridge” which ironically is not so old. The original Old Bridge was a 16th century Ottoman bridge which stood for over 400 years before it was intentionally destroyed during the war by the Croat army. (You can actually watch the bombing of it on YouTube if you want!) The new “Old Bridge” and the surrounding area was rebuilt with money donated by Spain and a number of other countries and in fact 30% of the new bridge is made from stone from the original bridge brought up from the riverbed by US divers. The new Old Bridge was officially opened in July 2004 by Prince Charles under heavy security and in 2005 it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. These days, the only bombing you see are locals jumping off the bridge for money.
The only bridge in the city to survive the war is the small Crooked Bridge but unfortunately it was destroyed by a flood in 1999. It has been rebuilt but Mostar certainly does not have much luck with bridges!
The streets around the Old Bridge were a mixture of cultures (just as the country is) with Turkish style shops, narrow cobbled streets and Bob Marley music blaring (not sure how that culture fits in lol). The cobbles today are flat as you would expect but get very slippery when wet however the original cobble stones was standing vertically which apparently were much easier to walk on – they had a small example of the old style, something I have never seen before and sounds far more practical.
The last stop before lunch was at the Turkish House, which was exactly as it seems, and beautiful example of an old house which was traditional in the region during Ottoman rule. This one was built in 1635. It was beautifully ornate inside and had very high walls around it – apparently the higher the walls the more beautiful the women were within the walls!
We also learnt that they also use to wear a Fez (hats like in Turkey and Morocco) and did you know that the marital status of the wearer was indicated by which side the tassel sits and more importantly, as a guest, if you were served with hot coffee you were welcome, if served with cold coffee you should leave quickly lol!
For lunch I wanted something traditional and had considered having Bosnian pie – filo like pastry in a roll and filled with spiced beef, but it was very similar to those in Croatia so instead I went with Cevapcici – little beef sausages with pita bread and red pepper sauce, washed down with a bottle of local beer. I followed it up with the famous Mostar fig cake for dessert which was very sweet, even a little too much for me (and I love sweet things). It was definitely much cheaper than Croatia!
In all honesty, Mostar was truly beautiful. Beautiful buildings lining the river, narrow shop lined streets, mosques near churches and not full of the crowds of Dubrovnik. The people were also incredible friendly and welcoming. As with everywhere I go these days, I wish I could have stayed longer.
A couple more interesting facts about Mostar and BiH:
- You only get 13 seconds to cross a 4-lane road – I strolled across in 9 but don’t know how old people do it!
- Everyone accepted Croatian kuna, euros or Bosnian mark in payment. On top of that, they gave change in the currency you gave them. According to our guide, money is money! Of course, I only went to the tourist towns so this may not be true of the whole country.
After lunch, it was time to head back through the borders to Dubrovnik, I took a cheeky bus nap and woke up in Croatia 😂.
Fun fact – although I am considering this my first trip to this region, I have actually been here before. During the Civil war, I caught a train from Munich to Istanbul which passed through the inbattled Yugoslavia. The doors of the train were chained and padlocked shut as the train sped through the rapidly dissolving country without stopping until it reached the Bulgarian border. I am glad this experience is completely different!