We picked up our rental car in Dubrovnik and headed northwest towards Bosnia. Our plan was to visit Medugorje for a few hours and continue on and overnight in Mostar. A word of caution: Do not trust Google maps in the Balkans. Seriously, our running joke now is to point at the most impossibly inclined rock-strewn dirt roads leading to dead ends and bordered by razor wire and say “Google Maps Road.” Luckily, Martha insisted beforehand on going ultra old-school and getting a proper paper road atlas for the region. The first time Google tried to do us in, Map Lady had us going through a shortcut up a mountain that led to a “restricted” border crossing to Bosnia. Note: “Restricted” means locals only. While the view was pretty spectacular, and we certainly took a few minutes to enjoy the desolation and solitude way up there, we still had to backtrack to the main highway. Anyhow, we got back on track and stuck to the main highways and toll roads, no matter how many times the iPhone implored us to drive the wrong way down one-way streets. The main highway along the coast is just gorgeous. Really, the drive itself is easily as scenic as some of the destinations.
There was a small delay when we actually crossed into Bosnia for the second time, but it was mostly smooth sailing for a while after that. Our first stop was the town of Medugorje. The story has it that in 1981 a group of Bosnian kids playing on top of a mountain came across a lady that people believe was an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The place has become somewhat of a quasi-Catholic (unsantioned) pilgrimage site. Medugorje gets over a million visitors a year and the tourist draw has really transformed an otherwise small and very poor town. As a complete nonbeliever, I still found the place fascinating. I will say though that the Catholics know how to monetize a site with souvenirs better than any religious site that we’ve visited.
In Mostar, we stayed at a hotel that is inside an historic house and museum. It was just an overnight visit, but it was a nice introduction to Bosnia. We toured the old town in Mostar and had dinner at a nice place serving traditional Bosnian fare. We both agreed that the Bosnian Kebaps are the best we’ve had in the Balkans. Otherwise, they do some great stewed beef and onions, eggplant, and stuffed peppers of a few different types. One type of Bosnian dish that shouldn’t be missed are called Burek, which are crispy baked filo dough filled with a variety of different things, with savory types like meat, potato, cheese, spinach or squash. They also have sweet Burek filled with fruit.
Before leaving Mostar, we did make a brief stop at an interesting monument that is kind of in ruins. The Partisan cemetery is outside the center of town and is a bit difficult to find. We ending up doing some brief hiking in a nearby area before figuring out where the real entrance is. It is absolutely not a typical tourist spot. Rather, it is a completely overgrown ruin, and probably a bit dangerous at night. It’s an unusual place and I really enjoyed seeing it.
Driving out of old town in Mostar felt a bit harrowing at times, as it has extremely narrow roads that take sharp turns on very steep inclines. We made it through ok though and were almost in Sarajevo before we hit a minor setback. I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m a pretty lousy driver. So, you know, consider the source. That being said, there are a few things that are a bit different while driving around this region that throw me off even further. Aggressive drivers tailgating come with the territory and I don’t think that makes much difference to me. I’m only going to drive so fast on tight mountain roads. The stop signs on all the cross streets seem to be angled to face at you at like 45 degrees, and seeing them is more than a little confusing when you approach an intersection. Finally, the stoplights. The lights flash green before turning yellow and red, and they flash yellow and red before turning green. Oh, and drivers all start honking when it flashes yellow and red, before it even has a chance to turn green. Now, me saying all of that, while it may sound like it, does not excuse the fact that I flat out ran a red light at one point. I saw the red light. I slowed down, almost to a stop even. But then, something about this little T-junction just threw me off and I thought the light was for the turn or who the hell knows what, but I gunned it through, and the next thing I know I had some Bosnian cops tailing us. (Sorry, no picture gallery with the cops)
So, given that in the USA, trying to bribe the police, unlike most traffic violations, is an actual crime, I wasn’t going to be too direct about that approach. I knew what the cop was getting at with “What are we going to do about this?” but just wasn’t sure how to close the deal from there. Luckily, I didn’t have to. He gave me an opportunity to frame the price with “How much is a red light ticket in your country?” and then followed with a direct question of “How much can you pay now?” And with that, we were back on our way at a fraction of the ticket price. With all said and done, since they apparently hold your passports at the police station when you are issued an actual ticket, getting gently robbed by the police didn’t feel too bad. We got away clean with our documents intact and only got bitten with a small fine/bribe. I must say, we were pretty paranoid about traffic lights after that.
We stayed right outside of old town in Sarajevo. I expected the town to be a bit more scarred from war in the 1990s. Sarajevo was under siege for almost four years, getting shelled daily, longer than any other city in modern times. Around the city, damage by mortar rounds are filled with red resin, so called “Sarajevo Roses.” We only saw a few of these. Most of the city we saw was very clean, with lots of recent construction. The integration of Christian and Muslim traditions within the city is a point of pride and very interesting to see. In some ways, that is similar to Istanbul, but Sarajevo doesn’t have (at least at the present time) the same sort of palpable tension that you can sense at times in Istanbul. We visited a couple of museums while in town and enjoyed a few nice meals. Bosnian food has remained a favorite of ours in the region. Before heading out of town, we drove up to a scenic spot called White Bastion, which is an old fort that overlooks the town. I made the mistake of mentioning to Martha beforehand a Google review of the place from six months ago where a girl and her boyfriend were robbed at knifepoint. Paranoia aside, the place is a ruined fort on an isolated hill. I can’t speak to safety at all times, but it seemed ok in the morning when we visited.
So, after a few days in Bosnia, we moved along to our next stop in Split, Croatia. Our drive to Sarajevo was divided over a couple of days, but we made our way back and even further north in one shot. This was made a lot easier by planning the route by hand in an atlas and just using Google maps for the fine-tuned navigation while getting in or out of a city. My advice to anyone driving here is stick to the toll roads as much as absolutely possible. After these past couple of fast-paced days, we’ll be spending a few days in Split and get another opportunity to relax a bit.