After spending a lot of time inland and in Bosnia & Herzegovina, I spent almost 5 days in Dubrovnik, the lovely crown jewel of the Adriatic. If coming from Mostar, like I was, you can take a pretty comfortable bus for a few hours and stop halfway through to see the sight above. How freaking beautiful is this. After the week in the mountains, it was nice to see the crystal blue water.
Dubrovnik is such an interesting little town, really unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It is entirely walled in (or at least the Old Town is, where most tourists will remain), a tiny fortress of a town surrounded by steep cliffs and the beautiful ocean. You’ll enter the Old Town by one of three gates, most likely Pile Gate, the main one from the major road outside (which leads up to the fancy Hilton). I’ve never been in such a densely touristed place.
Early one morning after several days in Sarajevo, we took a rickety, smoke-filled train (again!) to the tiny town of Mostar, down in the Herzegovina region of the country. This route had even more beautiful views.
Mostar is most famous because of its devastatingly beautiful bridge, Stari Most. Because of it, and because it’s a pleasant (now) little town, it is a very popular tourist stop. In the old city section and of course on the bridge, you’ll be caught in throngs of tourists, most of whom are over from Dubrovnik for the day. (It makes an easy day trip from there, which all the tour companies can seduce you with, but I recommend coming down from Sarajevo so you can see more of the country.)
I didn’t care about the crowds, because this site is so lovely and so historically interesting. Stari Most, or the Old Bridge, was built in the 16th century and was a marvel for its time, “the longest only single-span stone arch in the world” (so says my Rick Steves guidebook in an unattributed quote). The strong bridge stood up during the World Wars, becoming a lasting symbol of Herzegovina.
Despite having withstood so many foes, the 1990s war proved too much for the bridge. As bombing hit Mostar in 1993, the bridge suffered direct hits. Then one final shell hit, and the people watched as the symbol of their history and home collapsed into the Neretva River.
For the first full day in Sarajevo, we explored the Old Town and hit the major cultural sights. First stop was Baščaršija ("Bashcharshia", maybe), the Ottoman-built bazaar and old town.
The quaint Old Town felt simple and pleasant, and it was fun to wander around without worrying about getting too lost (not possible). Tiny, cobbled alleyways were that perfect sort for wandering. It was astonishing to consider that the tragic siege of this city by the Serbs occurred relatively recently, and that every local we met lived through it.
One early morning, after enjoying a few days in Zagreb, I embarked on a pretty crazy day-long train journey to Bosnia. It felt important for me to spend quality time in Bosnia since for so much of my life all I knew about it was that Cher Horowitz thought it was in the Middle East.
I knew going in, from reading online accounts from other travelers, that the bus to Sarajevo was faster, had air conditioning, and prohibited smoking. But, it had no onboard bathroom and only made 2-3 stops during the 8-9 hour ride. Not ok! I had to take the train: Even if the bathroom onboard was a disgusting hole of %@*$, I needed it.
I felt pretty prepared for delays, the low comfort level, the disgusting bathroom, and most horribly the cigarette smoke. The ride wasn’t as awful as I prepared myself for, so I advise you to expect the worst and be rewarded with just pretty bad.
The first thing I felt when I landed, alone, in Zagreb, Croatia was excitement. The second was idiocy, as I was still dressed in my airplane outfit – black pants and a long-sleeved black hooded shirt – and it was hot. Luckily, the excitement won over and I began an incredible journey through the Balkans.Jelacic Square
Zagreb is a pretty easy city for a newcomer to maneuver. After getting my luggage (one of these days I’ll do a long trip with just carry-ons, but until then…), I quickly found an ATM and a cab to take me to my hotel. I usually like to rely on public transit in foreign cities, but my Rick Steves guidebook said a taxi was the best way. After nearly 24 hours of traveling, I welcomed the opportunity to be lazy. To go from the airport to the city center costs 180-220 kuna if you aren’t getting ripped off, about $30-$40 USD.
As is the case with most European cities, the first (and usually best) thing I did was stroll through the busy downtown. Once you get your bearings with the main piazza, Ban Jelačić Square, and a few main streets like Ilica and Vlaska Ulica, you’ll see how manageable the center is. Of course, if you’re me, you’ll still get turned around every 15 minutes, but still. Better than usual.
Jelačić Square is marked by a large statue of its namesake, Josip Jelačić, riding a horse. Jelačić was governor in the 1800s, and decided that Austria > Hungary and united with the Habsburg Empire against the Hungarians’ attempts to control Croatia.
Look, princess, there's a baby in a basket!
The bustling square acts as a showcase for vendors, people watching, and random things like this amazing children’s ride as part of what seemed like a makeshift Renaissance Faire, as well as the hilarious dunk tank below.
A few blocks from Jelačić Square, you’ll see a funicular that takes you a very short way up the hill to an old village. It’s actually billed as the shortest cable car ride in the world. I’ll leave it to one of you to verify that. I love funiculars almost as much as I love the word funicular, but we just missed our chance to ride it.