The Balkans Part 1: Croatia & Bosnia – A Mysterious Wonderland

The Balkans are a mysterious and largely misunderstood place. The names Croatia, Bosnia, & Serbia conjure images of decades of darkness brought on by civil war and years of communist oppression when the area was called Yugoslavia. The words Bosnia and genocide are almost inextricably linked in so many Western minds. We were trying to be open minded, but not without some trepidation. Research told us Europeans have been returning in the last 5-years to Croatia’s perfect blue waters and pebbly beaches, but Bosnia & Serbia remained dark and mysterious, if even a little “adventurous” in our minds’ eye.

The plain truth is that any fears for the 2015 traveler are unfounded. While the physical and emotional wounds in the region still run deep, the Balkan nations are perhaps the Western world’s true “last frontier” of tourism. The complex, but engaging, people combine with stunning Aegean scenery, mystifying East meets West architecture, and culture to offer the willing traveler a compact adventure of a lifetime.

Our trip started innocuously enough in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. The country’s largest city doesn’t register on many folks’ tourism maps aside from it’s status as the region’s main transportation hub. Indeed, a change of train to bus was what brought us there. We decided to allow a couple of days of sightseeing, figuring any national capital was worthy of 48-hours. Our decision was generously rewarded.

There is plenty to complement in Zagreb with regards to food, wine, & architectural accomplishments, but just enjoy some of the views we received during an afternoon spent wandering around the uniquely styled city.

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While all of this was great, it was pretty easy to “see” Zagreb in 4-6 hours. What made the trip so special was our outstanding AirBnB hosts. Valentina & Zoran provided delicious home cooked breakfasts, homebrewed rakjia (plum brandy) and, knowing full well we’d run out of things to see in our allotted time, a cookout in our honor with several of their close friends at a local park. This was the unquestioned highlight of the visit with drinks, grilled sausages, and a rousing game of “ask the American.” We did our best to dispels the stereotype of the 300-lb, boxed-food eating, rascal riding Wal-Mart shopper…but Grant’s red neck can only be hidden away so well. That night was a precursor to many a conversation to come. The myth of broad foreign “hate” of Americans was quickly showing to be just that, a myth, but the understanding gap between our cultures was wide. We spent hours talking about the sky high Croatian youth unemployment, “gun culture” in America, and everything in between. It was a lighthearted but sincere exchange. We did make one serious contribution to their knowledge of our culture. They left with a firm understanding of the difference between BBQ’ing and grilling and that the sauce doesn’t make the BBQ. You’re welcome America.

So, if all of this is starting to sound like some academic exercise more than an adventure or fun travels, well, let us introduce you to coastal Croatia. Day three brought the bluest water, dotted by sunny islands, beautiful people, and our first base of operations, a town that sprung up inside the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

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Not bad, huh? Split is now a much talked about “up and coming” destination in Europe, thanks in part to both Game of Thrones, which films frequently here and good ol’ RyanAir who added it as a port of call some years back. Prior to that, Split, much like Zagreb, was known more as a transit hub. It was a jumping off point for some of the most beautiful islands and their towns in the world. The jet set crowd uses its marina for Hvar City and a thousand other islands (not an exaggeration, Croatia has 1300+ islands) can be reached from its port. While we had our eyes set on island time as well, we gave Split its due and slotted 2 days of sightseeing here before taking off.

Split is the town that grew up inside a palace, seriously, you can read all about Diocletian, villagers escaping marauding invaders and the city that came to be inside a palace here. Visitors today experience a bizarre mix of tourist kitsch and daily life taking place in a the frame of a sprawling palace that takes up almost the entire city’s waterfront. And it was all built 1600 years ago, though all of those satellite dishes on the roofs are at least 17th century…

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View from the palace bell tower

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The old underground tunnels of the palace turned into a main passage way into the “city” with tourist trinket stalls.

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“What you doing?”

“Oh, nothing, just drying my laundry in outside my apartment in a 1700 year old Emperor’s Palace. Same ol’ same ol’. ”

Day five was much more serious pursuit. Beach Day. It seemed like forever ago we were dipping our toes into the Med at Amalfi and we needed saltwater in our lives. Croatian beaches take some getting used to as they’re mostly small smooth stones as opposed to sand, but with the proper application of towels, beer, and warm sunshine it’s perfect.  We were too busy doing nothing to be bothered taking pictures of Kastelet Beach, so here’s the ONE from that day… Other peoples pictures here.

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Now, time to get down to what we really came here for, Island Life. We packed up and hopped a boat to Stari Grad on Hvar Island, not to be confused with Hvar Town. While Hvar Town boasts billionaires doing whatever the hell billionaires do on islands, Stari Grad is the essence of our time in Croatia. A small Venetian styled port village at the back of a beautiful bay. You feel like you’ve been transported to a dream world. No place is ACTUALLY this beautiful, is it?

Well for two days we proved it so. One day we explored on foot, hiking miles of wild olive tree covered hills, climbing up and down goat trails to isolated picture perfect coves, and generally just got lost in island paradise.

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Day two we scored ourselves a hot set of wheels and toured the island’s south coast in style.

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That last picture is of our secluded little swimming hole that day. A perfect blue cove, surrounded by 3,000′ tall mountains, with vineyards to the west and olive groves to the east. This. Is. Paradise. Oh, did we mention the Zinfandel grape made it’s way to California from Croatia? The legendary red wine flavor bomb calls Croatia its ancestral home where today many wineries produce Plavac Mali (Pla-VACH MAH-lee). We visited Tomic Winery on our scooter tour and were floored by his handcrafted wine & cellar. If Split should be on everyone’s tourist radar, Plavac should be in everyone’s wine rack. But for now, we’ll happily keep it all a secret just between us, okay?

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We returned to the mainland on day 7 of our Croatian adventure unready to leave Split/Hvar, but already committed to doing so. Our last night, Split sent us off in style with what is probably the best value on a meal that has ever existed. Villa Spiza served up veal chops cooked perfectly, a giant plate of perfectly seasoned mussels, grilled veggies, two big beers, bread, excellent olive oil, and wonderful service. It’s all bought that morning at the local market and a menu is hand written daily. Prepared in a two burner kitchen. For $22 total. We love Croatia.

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Off again early the next day, we headed southeast into Bosnia. Only a few dozen kilometers from the nearest Croatian beach city, we traded blue skies for the blue domes of mosques and the warm Aegean sea for the cold mountain fed Neretva river that divides our host city, Mostar. In Southwest Bosnia, Mostar is famous for it’s single arch 16th century Stari Most bridge built on the orders of the legendary Suleiman The Magnificent.

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In more recent years however, it looked somewhat different.

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After years as allies against the Yugoslavian Army (at that point, really just Serbia & Montenegro), Croatian forces turned their guns on the Bosnians in 1993 and on November 9th after 30+ direct hits from tank artillery, the bridge finally gave way ending 427 years of architectural perfection.

Bosnians like to say, “We have too much history for such a small country”. Like Stari Most, reminders of that dark history are scattered over the naturally Eden-esq valley that Mostar resides in. From cemeteries filled almost entirely with a single year’s casualties, to bombed out buildings, and bullet hole strewn gates, Mostar is full of visual reminders of the atrocities thrust on these people 20-years ago.

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Cemetery full of graves from 1993 with bombed out building in the background.

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Former Grand Hotel

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One of a hundred walls/gates covered in bullet pocks and blast marks.

But the city isn’t all bullet holes and somber memories. The old market district is thriving, the Stari Most Bridge was masterfully rebuilt with exacting attention to the spirit of the original, and the restaurant and bar scene is cheap, delicious, and gregarious. In a little over 36-hours we had our first baklava and real Turkish coffee while we waited out a torrential downpour, heard our first Muslim call to prayer, visited a great museum in the towers of Stari Most, shared beers and travel stories at a local bar run by an American ExPat and explored a beautiful, if tortured, city.

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We combined this by watching a comprehensive BBC documentary on the 90’s Balkan War (long, but excellent, here) to really gain an understanding of our host.

Bosnia made a deep, and hopefully lasting, impact on us both in our short time there. It’s a story of how geography can conspire against a region, but it’s people can absorb history’s blows and keep going forward with a large, albeit weary, smile.

Thursday morning brought a southbound bus headed for King’s Landing, err, Dubrovnik, Croatia. We’ll continue the story in a couple of days with Part 2 of our Balkans adventure from there.

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Гуд ноћ

Mr. & Mrs. Trading Paradises

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