Croatia

CroatiaDestinationsEuropeThe Balkans

Going at it in the Lapad Peninsula

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I find it odd that a mere 1-hour time difference between the UK and the continent still has some sort of effect on my droopy eyelids. And even odder that just this morning I walked the length of the Lapad Peninsula (and once more in Old Town) in Dubrovnik, and type this late at night back in the UK.

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Sometimes it is too much to process. I set off early from the Pension in the hopes of catching the airport bus, only to have a taxi pull up at the buss-stop at the same time, offering the same price to the airport. It sounded too good to be true. But I hopped in, along with another couple whom I met just a week ago taking the same airport bus with me into Dubrovnik when we both arrived. What coincidence. It turned out that the taxi driver needed to pick some people up from the airport and thought of sending passengers there as well. Mutually beneficial, so he said.

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That couple who were also in the taxi waxed lyrical about Dubrovnik, its sun-soaked atmosphere and the friendly people, while the driver seemed pleased to hear it. The mutual sentiment amongst them was that Montenegrins have sold their souls when they sold their lands to the Russians.

“You have done a good job,” the woman said. “Everything is so nice, so well-done.”

I did not say very much throughout their animated chatter. Tiredness prevented me from reflecting too much, which, I suppose, in hindsight, is probably a good thing. Will I miss the spectacular scenery? Certainly. The daily dose of gelato? Sure. The sun? Well…perhaps, despite the outbreak of hives and a rather bad sunburn on my back and shoulders. There was a visible tan there after all! The people? I’m mixed.

I’m glad to be back here actually because I’ve always needed the cooler weather more than I like the heat. The blast of cold air that hit me in the face was rather welcome, despite the loud complaints from the other passengers.

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Bosnia and HerzegovinaCroatiaDestinationsEuropeThe Balkans

Division and Unity

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Only after buying a return bus ticket to Dubrovnik did I learn from Rezi that a little-known service that does door-to-door pickup from Korcula to Dubrovnik costing the same amount as the bus, with fewer people and at a sane hour existed. So I was still stuck with needing to catch a bus back at 6.45am, and spent most of the day indoors to prevent the hives from getting worse.

Yet the scratching continued, least helped by the next early day-tour taken to Mostar, a town nestled deep in the mountains and valleys of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which, away from the coast, boasted soaring spring temperatures that hit near 30 degrees. I was told that Mostar is one of the warmest regions in the Mediterranean (so they claim it is indeed a Mediterranean climate), but frequently gets 40-degree summers.

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It felt unreal entering Bosnia, a place that I vaguely remember in my teens as war-torn, and politically divided, and needing prayer, according to a teacher who said so during morning school assembly. Back then, we scoffed and laughed, and wondered about its relevance. But I wouldn’t have thought that I would, years later, step foot in the region, only to see the tragic scars of war on Bosnia-Herzegovina that remain. Reconstruction and rehabilitation continue at a snail’s pace for Bosnia. It remains an incredibly poor country with a 30% unemployment rate, and gypsies litter the surrounding streets of Mostar asking for money.

The bus went by the Neum corridor, a 9 km long stretch of Bosnia-Herzegovinian territory (border-checks included) that is 60km from Dubrovnik, and then slipped back into Croatia once more, before driving into the mountains and the Neretva Delta. Before long, the “proper” border-formality and check-point came into view once more.

It seemed that no one knew if my passport was valid for entry. But it was.

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Mostar, for all its Ottoman influence, feels like a miniature Turkey, stunningly familiar in some senses after having seen Istanbul twice. Its food and architecture are foundationally Turkish, a consequence of six hundred years of Ottoman rule. Its famous bridge that spans the Neretva river is much a symbol of division as it is of unity between sides, and guides are quick to point out the coexistence of multicultural groups rather than its tensions.

Men jump into the river for cold, hard cash and simply to amuse tourists who live out their thrill-seeking alter-egos by paying these men to do it. Erring on the side of caution, the german-speaking guide chose instead to point out particular spots of significance and its origin, but glossed disappointingly over the complexity of the war’s surrounding circumstances. I wanted to ask burning questions – how was it like as you grew up? What were such tensions? – but wondered in all good faith, if it hit too close to home, when such seemingly innocent questions might have, for them, meant a matter of death of life.

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We stopped for a “photo-break” in Pocitelj, a town to the south of Mostar, devoid of anyone until we came along it seemed. The last toilet-break was once more in Neum. To my horror, the bus parked beside many other large tour buses where all perspiring tourists queued for gelato, and crammed into the supermarket seeking cold drinks. That particular scene served as a timely reminder of the bane of a package tour, even if it was only for a day.

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CroatiaDestinationsEuropeThe Balkans

A hive of (in)activity

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The bus journey to Korcula runs daily at 3pm from the bus terminal and seeing that the check-out time at Pension Stankovich is at 10am, the morning was spent wandering about in the sweltering heat and finally into the Taj Mahal, a small konoba off the Stradun that serves strangely, Bosnian rather than Indian food. Bosnian sweets and strong coffee at 11am in the morning couldn’t possibly go wrong. Thus came the tufahijia, a dessert dish made from baked apples, chocolate and walnuts, then topped with a layer of cream.

It was then back to the Pension begging for much needed relief found in a glass of cold water, Mac’s company and a suspicious Stankovich cat staring at me in the kitchen area while Zoran’s brother hung laundry outside to dry. For some reason he seems obsessed with Indonesia (and with the pirates along the Straits of Malacca), as he had, according to Zoran, spent some years ago in the Navy in Southeast Asia.

I found out just how much Croatia is about money and more money as the agencies squeeze the mickey out of the average visitor (and also out of the locals) – when I was informed to my incredulous amazement and stunned disbelief by the bus driver to Korcula that storing my bag in the luggage hold cost 10 kuna, in addition to the bus ticket fare, as well as the extra cost of reserving a seat number.

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The coast-hugging ride to Korcula was a 3.5 hr one (and obviously scenic) that included a 15-minute ferry ride across from Orebic. Finding the cheerful-looking Depolo Villa was rather easy as it was located along a lane that leads out of the Old Town into the residential area of Sveti Nikole. Rezi Depolo, its chatty owner, regaled me with a few of her travel stories, the stray cats she feeds, her sunday plans, and her dismal internet wireless, just as I requested for my laundry to get done.

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“You must try Maslina,” Rezi said, and launched into a rather complicated set of instructions on the Korculan restaurant’s location en route to Lumbarda. “There is another one in Old Town, but just 5 days ago, a French couple told me that they changed ownership and it’s not very nice, and not very friendly. Go to the one outside. It’s a nice walk. And there is a church on top of a hill, surrounded by cypress trees. You can have a nice view of the town. Before I could process all of it, I was then sent off to the small Old Town on her orders as the last rays of light faded. My full day in Korcula fell on a sunday, which meant most of the town closes to celebrate inactivity and rest.

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The sights that Rezi mentioned were a bit of a walk out of town and came at the cost of full-blown hives. Red, angry patches that started out as some pinkness on the arms appeared in full force and looked to spread quickly after I spent an extended length of time walking in the sun. What did I do after rubbing a lot of hydrocortisone that seemed to have absolutely no effect? I knocked on Rezi’s door apologetically to disturb her once again, and begged for some alternative Croatian “herbal” remedy. Rezi took one look at the increasingly leprous-lookalike arms, and gave me a glass of rubbing alcohol which helped calm the itch a bit but made the skin sore to the touch.

My alcohol-induced commandment of the day: Lead me not into temptation to scratch.

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CroatiaDestinationsEuropeMontenegroThe Balkans

Crna Gora: Shade is Salvation

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When someone has food and drink, sit closer. When they are working, move away. It is best not to disturb them. – One of the 10 commandments printed on a postcard of Montenegro

It is rather mind-blowing to enter a country that is a mere 3 years old but has a history that stretches over millennia. Montenegro – bordered by the Adriatic sea in the southwest and Croatia in the west – severed its ties with Serbia in June 2006 and declared its independence. It is an enticing region of monuments (and their ruins), beaches and great weather, situated in the allure of sparkling sea that continues as far as the eye can see.

The group I chose to do the tour with had thankfully, a small bus with a group of 14 persons, which meant nipping around more quickly. I was impressed by everyone’s punctuality and amused by the degree to which sunblock was revered by most of them; in fact, people were even early for the scheduled meeting times despite turning red in the face and hurrying around in the heat. I braved the sun, thinking that my skin must somehow be used to it, and managed to get an uneven browning instead. A crazy woman in the group kept asking for the beach, and wore clothes that were aimed solely for removal at first sight of water and shingle/sand.

We drove through 2 checkpoints, and soon reached Herceg Novi, a town whose industrial Soviet-era architecture sharply contrasts its picturesque setting – the La Dolce Vita standard that Dubrovnik has striven so hard to attain with its villas and available luxury – is still the missing factor in Montenegro’s package.

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The bay of Kotor lies further southwards, and winds inland so much that it is an area touted as Europe’s southernmost fjord, inhabited by the Illyrians in Classical Antiquity, overrun by the Romans, changed hands again and for a short time, belonged to Napoleon and the Austro-Hungarians. A city-guide met us in Kotor’s incredibly crowded old town, pointing out the number of aristocratic houses and churches crammed into a rather small square, rattling off way too many dates that flew just over my head. The guided tour meant however, that there wasn’t any time left to climb the 4km surrounding ramparts that provide a dramatic look down onto the city. A step out of the old town brings the local life into greater focus, and the daily market that lines up outside the town’s walls is probably the daily marketing congregational point of the Montenegrin natives.

The number of stray cats abound. It was after a time, difficult to get around the curious stares of shopkeepers and the slow-trudging of the tourists who arrive by the busload fanning themselves.

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Montenegrin beach tourism comes into full swing along the Budva Rivijera (Riviera), which supposedly rivals the south of France’s Riviera with kilometres worth of beach madness to explore. The Budva town itself is over 2 millenia years old and appeals to many because of pulsing nightlife and its beach bum status. Money rules the place: A staggering number of millionaires made their fortunes selling off lands to Russian development companies poured their new found wealth back into real estate in the surrounding towns of Podgorica and Herceg Novi.

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The Dubrovnik Gastro festival in the Stradun was gearing up for full swing at 7pm when I returned, going for an unbelievable 10 Kuna per ticket that I snapped up after some hesitation. The shoving that resulted once the gates opened was inevitable and annoying, and by the time I actually got to the food or what was left of it, all that was left really some black seafood risotto and a bit of dessert for dinner, a pity considering that Croatian specialities were up for grabs.

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CroatiaDestinationsEuropeThe Balkans

The Adriatic treasures

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I’m starting to believe that I never pass up an opportunity to say just how much I hate plane journeys. Given that Edinburgh-Dubrovnik was a new route introduced by FlyGlobespan and seeing that I was on the first trip there, I was half expecting that the pilot would get lost or some other horrible thing would happen. A 45-minute delay just had to prove me right. It was a full and long flight (3.5 hrs) for an intercontinental one on a budget airline, and I tried sleeping to no avail, only to perk up a bit when the plane went over the Swiss Alps.

Things changed however, when the Adriatic coastline – that looked like the curly-wurly patterns that people doodle when bored in class – came into view, littered with islands surrounded by turquoise waters. The airport was 22km down south of the city and on high ground. It was relatively painless getting on the shuttle, which all but had a grand total of 6 people in a 50-seater bus. (Going back would be a more painful story I suspect) The route to town hugged the coast on some sort of elevation, and I found myself enjoying it thoroughly.

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Dubrovnik has been called many things and it’s highly unoriginal of me to repeat how much this small town has been lauded by critics, guidebooks and celebrities alike, and it seems to have shrugged its war-laden baggage 20 years on by turning to tourism. I had been given a room with a (spectacular) view that comes from the generous balcony that overlooks the old town within a family house, at the cost of 350 steps that come between the old town and me.

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Old Town is ensconced by a thick, high wall of varying heights, and against my better stewardship of my spending money, I found myself scaling the city walls – 2 km worth of fortifications that date from the 12th century at least – and looking down on the red roofs that make this place so famous.

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The old town is bisected into two parts by the Stradun, a long strip of shiny marble ground where everyone seems to take a stroll in the off-season months, and where everyone cramps into during the summer months. It is not difficult to see why its charm has never failed – and among the Hollywood celebrities – this has also driven prices up quite steeply.

It is only my second exhausting day; I don’t claim to fully understand Dubrovnik, and in its wider context, the political difficulties of the former Yugoslavia. Maybe all the trips to Dubrovnik I’ll ever be making in my lifetime will never amount to any modicum of understanding even. Yet I cannot in good faith, call upon the simplicity and trigger-happy bumbling that characterises the typical tourist precisely because the scars of war must still exist, simmering under the surface and waiting to boil over once again.

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