Have Love Will Travel
The Bridge of Troubled Waters

Tuesday 25th May 2010

If we thought yesterday's early rise was a teeny bit annoying then the crashing clinking avalanche of bottles being dumped into dustbin alley at 3:30am this morning was so infuriating.

We just couldn't get to sleep after that rude awakening but at least we didn't have long to wait before we actually needed to get up. We had an early coach to Mostar to catch.

Once we got past our own local Pile (of rubbish) Gate we entered the beautiful side of the Old Town heading for the real Pile Gate.

The sun had already risen over Dubrovnik when we stepped out at 6:45am. Apart from the swallows we had the city to ourselves, well, apart from the bin men we were on our own, oh and also the delivery men.

Along the way we called in at a bakery on Gundulic Square for a couple of croissants for the bus journey.

We had noticed yesterday that it opened at 6:30am. Expecting deliciously fresh baked pastries we were disappointed when the croissants felt a little dry. We must have been too early for today's batch as they felt like yesterdays leftovers.

It was precisely seven o'clock when we reached the empty Stradun avenue just as the clock-tower chimed.

We looked up to see the large bell high in the tower struck by alternative strikes from hammer wielding brass statues. It was quite an impressive sight.

We had 35 minutes to get to our pick up point outside the Grand Hotel Imperial. I wasn't too sure how far away it was so we had allowed ourselves plenty of time. Two minutes after walking through Pile Gate we arrived at the hotel!

Our joining instructions didn't really say where exactly we should wait for our pick so we walked around the outside of the charming 19th century hotel for a while looking for where was the most appropriate spot.

Built in 1897 the Grand Hotel Imperial had retained the elegance of that period thanks to a sympathetic renovation evoking that Grand Tour style of travel . It had only reopened in 2005 after it was partially demolished during the war. It was now a five star luxury Hilton hotel.

We decided to sit outside the main entrance on a floral roundabout. All vehicles for drop off and pick up would surely have to come up this way.

The closer we got to pick up time the more unsure we got and we decided to relocate down to the side of the road near the hotel's underground car park.

It was lucky we did because only minutes later the bus arrived and it pulled up at the side of the main road. (not in front of the main hotel entrance)

Another couple of couples had arrived to wait with us by then. The driver looked down his list of names.

He scratched his head, looked at our booking confirmation, grunted then signalled for us to get on the minibus.

Julie and I climbed inside his brand new VW transporter with another two couples. "Is this it?" I thought quite pleased "are we going to Mostar with this small group?"

It turned out we weren't. It almost turned out that we were going nowhere.

This was just a shuttle to deliver us to Gruz, Dubrovnik's major port area to meet our 52 seater coach. When I handed over our booking confirmation to the trip manager we weren't on the list of names for the trip.

It wasn't looking good as she phoned her office and a lot of head shaking ensued.

Then out of nowhere she waved us on board. We didn't give her any time to change her mind and were sat down in our seats within seconds of her go ahead.

We didn't leave Gruz until 8am.

Once we set off we immediately had to span the wide Dubrovacka rijeka (Dubrovnik River) by driving over the Franjo Tudjman suspension bridge, named after Croatia's first President.

The road followed the coast North with great views of the Elaphite islands that were quite literally a constant companion. It almost felt as if only wide river separated us and Kolocep, Lopud and Sipan.

We were unfortunately sat in the wrong seats to fully appreciate the views sat on the right hand side of the bus with it all rolling past us on the left.

"Never mind. We'll be on the right side for the way home" said Julie before adding "but it'll probably be dark by then!"

When we reached the Peljesac peninsula one view did get me up out of my seat to get a photograph over the heads of our fellow passengers.

It was the fortified walls of Ston.

It looked incredible. Croatia's very own Great Wall snaking it's way over the hills. It totals over 5km in length and served to protect the Republic of Ragusa.

This ancient boundary was revived when lines were redrawn to disembowel Yugoslavia after the recent war. Recalling a 1699 treaty in which Ragusa gave up a small part of the coast to the Ottoman Empire creating a buffer zone between themselves and Venetians. That 20km stretch of coast is now Bosnia & Herzegovina.

It's quite odd to look at a map of Croatia and see effectively the Republic of Ragusa detached from the rest of the country.

It's a proper border crossing as well as we stopped and our tour manager/guide had to complete some formalities for us. It must not have been very taxing however as it only took a few seconds.

In no time we rolled into Bosnia & Herzegovina's premier (and only) seaside resort town of Neum.

Although the front here wasn't directly onto open sea but a large bay, it even looked like a huge lake, a large inlet of water between the mainland and the Klek peninsula.

We pulled over at a roadside cafe large enough to take a few coach load of tourists at a time. It was positioned in a lovely spot overlooking where the peninsula met the mainland.

At the back it had a veranda with great views down the coastline where we sat down and enjoyed a decent coffee.

We paid with Croatian Kunas but they would have accepted Euros or Bosnian Marks. I'm sure they would have accepted Vietnamese Dongs if that's all we had.

Back on the bus we continued along the Adriatic Highway and in no time popped out of Bosnia & Herzegovina and back into Croatia.

After following the coast for so long we finally turned inland when we reached the Neretva Delta, an area of nutrient rich wetlands.

The Neretva river had flowed 230km from high up in the Dinaric Alps the Balkans' great mountain range. The road to Mostar followed the course of the river Eastwards.

We drove through a small town called Metkovic, right on yet another border with Bosnia & Herzegovina.

This time things were more official at the border crossing. We parked up and our tour manager walked inside one of the security offices. Ten minutes later an official came on board the bus to give us the once over, probably just to check that everyone looked like a normal tourist.

I don't know why but when confronted with a figure of authority I always get suddenly and extremely guilt ridden. I've not done anything to be ashamed of in this life but I must have been some one bad in a previous one.

Fortunately the guard wasn't a clairvoyant and he didn't recognise me as an 18th century mass murderer so we continued on our journey.

I was quite excited at the border crossing, not just because we were entering "Bosnia" (or at least the Herzegovina region) but because I saw the Bosnia & Herzegovina flag. It was very telling that it was the first and last time we saw it!

We drove through several rural villages along the pretty Neretva river valley where the only flag being flown was the Croatian national flag. It was clear that ethnic divisions were still a current issue.

I was surprised to learn that the country is still divided administratively into two with almost half of the country known as the Sprska (Serbian) Republic and the another half the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina.

We also noticed how road signs were both in Latin script and Cyrillic but many had the Serbian associated Cyrillic script defaced by acts of vandalism.

Our tour guide went into a detailed ethnography of Bosnia & Herzegovina. It roughly consists of 40% Christian Serbs, 22% Catholic Croats and 38% Muslim Bosniaks. She continued to educate us. "The yellow triangle on the flag represent these three groups and the blue background with white stars is an aspiration towards European Union ambitions but being a divided country, like Cyprus, they may find it difficult."

We soon pulled over at a scheduled stop at Pocitelj, a small restored 16th century Ottoman village. It's now an UNESCO World Heritage Site and under its protection.

The Sahat-kula Fort dominated the skyline above the village but with a 20 minute time slot combined with the average age of the passengers being 63 it was out of reach of most. I decided it was even out of mine. I'm certainly not as young as I used to be (although I'm not bad for my age!)

Once we stepped off the coach we were set upon by a troop of traditionally costumed basket ladened women selling fresh strawberries, cherries and candied fruits.

I did waste more time by buying a paper cone filled with dried figs for €1. All this distraction was eating into our valuable time.

Julie wasn't up for a march up the hill so she browsed the few stalls in the car park whilst I rushed up the narrow cobbled street. I was aiming for the Hadži-Alija Mosque. As with most places in the region this village was badly damaged during the war but it has now all been returned to its former glory; and beautiful it did look too.

The path gradually climbed up towards the fort rising above the magnificent multi-domed roof of the Sisman-Ibrahim Pasina Medersa, the Koranic religious school.

I turned up a narrow street towards the mosque where at the top of the flight of steps a local woman was tending to a herb garden.

"Hello" I said. She acknowledged me but didn't answer, returning to her weeding.

Time was against me. I had reached the mosque but no sooner had I arrived I had to start my descent. Just a few quick photos of the view and back down those cobbled streets.

By the time I got down to the car park we were one of the last to get back on the bus.

Back in our seats I began eating my dried figs. They were very "dried" but really tasty nonetheless. I offered Julie some and she almost vomited at the thought of eating one!

Back on the road we were less than half an hour away from arriving in Mostar and at around 11:30am we pulled into a large car park behind a Cathedral with a very tall spire attached.

The first thing we noticed were the shocking amount of bullet holes that peppered every available surface of all the buildings.

Everywhere you looked you could see pitted walls, evidence of the nightmare that unfolded here between 1992-95.

We met our local guide Adisa. She was a young woman born and raised right here in Mostar.

Living here during war and especially through an 18 month siege must have been hell on earth.

We followed her past the St. Mary's Cathedral and the Franciscan Monastery both of which appeared untouched by bullet holes but that's because they were completely demolished during the war and have been rebuilt.

However they appeared to be unfinished as the restoration work has now come to a stop as the funding has dried up.

What was left was just the naked outer-shell of a building. The layer onto which the stone cladding facade would have been attached.

Next we came to the main road through Mostar called Bulevar Street. Adisa explained that this was effectively the front line during the siege where Croat and Bosniak forces collided.

Standing as a reminder of this barbaric time was the front of a building completely riddled with bullet holes.

About 2000 people died in Mostar alone during the conflict.

Crossing the road and following the sign for Stari Most (the old bridge) the pockmarked concrete walls and tarmac roads soon changed into quaint cobbled streets and old stone buildings where many stalls were set up to sell trinkets to tourists.

It was quite busy here in the Old Town with all the tour groups being herded down towards the famous old bridge.

We were no different.

We had no time to stop and browse as we followed Adisa to our first Mostar attraction, the Tabacica Mosque, also known as the Hadži-Kurt Mosque.

She explained that it was built late 16th century near a leather tannery from which is derives its name Tabacica. It's no longer an active mosque but because of its proximity to the old bridge it has become one of the most visited mosque in Mostar.

We stepped inside a simple interior where the Mirhab pointed towards Mecca and the Minbar steps gave the mosque's Imam the platform from which he could deliver his sermon.

The floor was covered with a patchwork of rugs adding colour and interest to the room.

Adisa told us that a "rivulet" of the river Radobolja runs beneath the Mosque.

She then enlightened us on the mosque's history and explained the importance of the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca.

"Each Muslim is expected to undertake the Hajj once in their lifetime" she said. "It's written in the Koran" she continued "that 'a pilgrimage to the House is a duty owed to God by all who can afford a way to it.'"

She gave her interpretation as meaning you should only undertake the sacred journey if you were in a position to do so; that you had the means not only to get yourself to Mecca but also the means to leave without placing your family into financial hardship in your absence.

Adisa was herself a Muslim and she hoped to complete the Hajj one day.

She was shy and unassuming, charming qualities you don't often find in a tour guide. They tend to be over confident and certainly tourist savvy. She was quite the opposite. Her vulnerability certainly made us listen more intently to what she had to say.

We left the Tabacica Mosque behind and within a minute we had reached the old bridge.

I remember wanting to visit Mostar a long time ago when I saw an old watercolour painting of the 16th century Ottoman hump-backed bridge in a book called Lands and Peoples, (printed in 1915). When we arrived it wasn't the "Wow" moment I was waiting for because a) it was so crowded and b) when you stand on the bridge you can't see the bridge!

Just before we stepped onto the bridge Adisa gave us a brief history. "It was built in 1566" she spoke but it was difficult to hear her amongst the tourist horde " ... and made from local tenelija stone"

I knew it had been blown up into many pieces in 1993 near the end of the siege and had been meticulously restored using as much as possible of the original pieces recovered from the Neretva river. What I didn't know was that it was Prince Charles who reopened the bridge in 2004.

On either side of the bridge were two fortified towers, the Helebija tower on the West bank and the Tara tower on the East.

Situated in the Helebija tower was the Mostari (Bridge Keepers) Divers Club where brave and foolish in equal measures congregated to jump into the Neretva river from the bridge, a frightening 24 metres drop into only 5 metres deep water.

Apparently they collect donations and once they reach a worthy amount they'll jump off the bridge! It must be quite a sight to see someone launch themselves off the bridge into the fast flowing river below. There must be some bonkers Bosniaks and crazy Croats about!

We crossed the bridge which wasn't easy. The incline was unsurprisingly steep for a hump-back bridge but what made it difficult was the paved floor had been worn down to a very smooth surface. If it wasn't for the raised ridges every 50cm we probably would have remained stuck on the left bank!

We didn't have to wait long for our first glimpse of the bridge in all its glory.

Adisa lead us down the incredibly quaint cobbled streets and stone houses of the restored 16th century Mostar. They were filled with everything a visitor could possibly want and much of what they couldn't possibly want.

When we reached the tourist office we turned around and there it was, the "wow" moment, the view that took my breath away and set that watercolour jumping out of its page and into my treasured memories.

No time to linger and admire though as we had to follow our group down Brace Fejica street on our way to visit the Turkish House.

It was also known as Biscevica Kuca (corner) and was turned into a tourist attraction in the 19th century when the Turk owner decided to head down to busy Ragusa and invite people to come and visit Mostar to see the old bridge and his lovely traditional Ottoman home.

"This better be worth it" I muttered under my breath as I was torn away from the view of the famous bridge. When we got to the house I huffed with disappointment. It didn't look like much from the outside.

All we could see was a small door through high white washed walls frosted with jagged pieces of glass.

Once we got inside the inner courtyard however I then became a little more appreciative of the Biscevica Turkish House.

We were offered a drink, a sweet fruit cordial, which we sipped then discreetly poured the rest into a potted plant next to us as we sat down to remove our shoes before entering the home.
It was a pretty little courtyard with a water feature in the middle made from copper jugs and bowls. We had arrived just after another tour group so we waited in the courtyard for a while.

Our group consisted of about twenty of us so we filled the small space of the courtyard.

I hadn't noticed but we were sharing the courtyard with several tortoises. Julie spotted them beneath the benches enjoying the shade from the sun.

Bare footed we all climbed up the steps into a reception room where we sat down and listened to Adisa give us the story behind the house.
Mostar was an outpost of the expanding Ottoman Empire and was made the capital of the recently acquired Herzegovina. The house was built in 1635 by a reasonably wealthy family in this boom town.

After a few minutes the tour group in front of us finished their time in the front lounge, so when they left we got up and moved through into the main reception room.

Julie wasn't aware of its precarious position built on stilts and overlooking the Neretva river until we left otherwise she wouldn't have gone in!

Adisa continued the story in here even dressing up in traditional peasant clothing for some reason. Our five minutes in the room were up and another tour group were waiting outside to take our place. We left the house and returned back down the Brace Felja street to the tourist office where we said goodbye to our charming guide. She gave us a few recommendations about places to eat for lunch and also a reminder to be back at coach for 2:45pm.

Before we parted someone from the group mentioned the war and asked of her experiences. She spoke with some emotion about living here in Mostar, hiding in the basement of her house for long periods, surviving on flour only enough to bake one loaf a day to feed the family of five. "It was hard times" she said "very hard" and with that she said goodbye.

We'd already lost one or two couples along the way but now we all went our seperate ways.

Both Julie and I were hungry and ready for lunch but before that I wanted to visit another mosque, the Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque. It was another mosque that was no longer actively being used for worship.

As pretty as the interior was the main reason for visiting Koski Mehmet Pasha was to climb up the spiral steps of the minaret for the "Best View at the Old Bridge"

I paid €4 to see if their claim was true or not.

Julie decided to sit this one out and was happy to wait for me outside.

I somehow convinced her that she should come with me and share in this amazing view.

The inside was very attractive but we headed straight for the steps in the corner. Julie went first and I followed her just in case she needed some encouragement. The staircase was very narrow as it twisted itself up the minaret. There would not have been enough room for two people to pass each other without getting very familiar. She was in no mood to meet anyone on the way down so she marched up at a rapid pace.

Within a minute we were nearing the top. Getting tired Julie climbed the last few steps on all fours when all of a sudden she stopped and screamed "Oh, fuck!"

She grasped the door frame almost ripping it off. She was quivering, fearing for her life frozen rigid to the spot with her face right up against the white chalky walls.

It wasn't just because we had reached the opening to the outside that petrified Julie but that the steps just suddenly stopped. They spiralled up all the way until the next step just wasn't there. There was nothing there. If you had continued to walk you would have fallen off the end and tumbled all the way back down.

I had never seen Julie so scared before. She couldn't step outside, she couldn't even stand up. "Can you get past?" she asked. I did and whilst she clung on for dear life inside the minaret I stepped over her and took a few photos of the most incredible view.

Back inside Julie had remained in the exact same position. With some coaxing and encouragement we manoeuvred together getting her to let go of the door frame and sit on the top step.

She then slowly turn herself around and bumped down the first few steps on her bottom.

Once clear of the drop she stood up but her legs were like jelly. The descent took us some time.

I couldn't apologise enough for making her do this, I had never seen her so scared but by the time we reached the bottom she was finding the funny side of it. We stayed inside the mosque for a while for Julie to regain her composure, leaving when a large group entered.

Still shook up we stayed a while within the grounds of the Koski Mehmet Pasha Mosque. There was an area near the riverbank where we could sit on the wall and gaze at the serene view.

I wondered how long it would be before someone would tire of that view. Back home we have stunning views of the Snowdonia mountain range but because we see them every day we take them for granted. I actually don't think you could ever tire of looking at this bridge. There's just something about it.

No lesser part of the composition was the Neretva river with its incredible green colour.

Our thoughts soon turned to lunch and we made our way back down the cobbled streets towards the bridge.

Before crossing we went inside the Tara Tower where there was a small free exhibition. They had many photographs of Mostar in ruins and had film footage of the moment the bridge was blown up. I got strangely emotional watching it take a direct hit and crashing into the Neretva river.

We crossed the bridge and this time it was a far more pleasant experience. Apart for one other person we were the only ones on the bridge. Everybody must have been having their lunch!

We decided that if we were ever in this part of the world again we would stay in Mostar overnight.

The quiet streets gave the old town a magical atmosphere. We imagined it being quite special in the fading light of the evening.

We were aiming for a few restaurants on the west bank, they would have a great view of the bridge.

Having crossed to the other side we were about to turn right when we were pounced upon by three menu wielding young girls.

The loudest and cockiest had us following her before we knew what was going on. We managed to snap out of our trance and asked to see the menu. It was very traditional with lots of veal on it.

"I'm sorry but I'm a vegetarian" I explained. She said "No problem" and pointed to my only choice on the menu, a plate of "vegetables".

She conceded and asked the other girls.

We chose a restaurant called Bella Vista as it was loosely Italian influenced and had a few pasta dishes I could choose from.

She lead us down to a probably the best table in the house, right on the corner with uninterrupted views of the bridge.

Perfect if we were going to get a jumper today.

The food was perfectly fine which was a bonus. Julie had grilled chicken kebabs with half a traditional Bosnian loaf which was interesting to say the least. I had a bowlful of Tagliatelle with Tomato Sauce.

It was all reasonably priced at €14 which made it taste even better! That price included a glass of beer/wine each and sparkling water each. We spent almost an hour here.

It was mostly relaxing despite the large group of Germans in the restaurant a few terraces upstream chanting what sounded like drinking songs.

Eventually we had to move on without seeing anyone jump off the bridge. Now there's our reason to return!

Time was running out, our coach was leaving in 15 minutes so once again we had to walk briskly through the handicraft stalls.

Back at the bus our driver Alan and our tour manager Sandra (yes, they were their real names) were waiting for us.

We weren't the last to return, in fact one couple (the youngest on the coach) hadn't arrived when Alan started the engine and began to drive away.

By the time we had reached the Cathedral they were just strolling around the corner eating ice cream. Sandra wouldn't let them on as the vanilla was dripping down their fingers in the 30C temperature.

It was funny to watch their reaction as they assessed the dilemma of can we get away with shoving it all in our mouths quickly or are we going to throw them on the floor.

They went for it, eating as much as they could before quickly realising that it was a stupid mistake and conceding defeat. They dumped the remainder of their cones on the street.

A few minutes behind schedule we left Mostar returning down the Neretva valley to the Adriatic coast.

We drove down to the border, passing some beautiful bends in the river along the way.

One spot, near the banks of the Neretva, right on the border with Croatia, there was a poignant field of red poppies. The symbolism of this flower as a very powerful reminder of the bloodshed was not lost on us.

The border formalities entering Croatia were a lot quicker.

We continued through the town of Metkovic and down to the Neretva river delta.

In the blink of an eye (almost) we were back in Bosnia & Herzegovina again driving through its coastal territory rolling into the seaside resort of Neum.

We stopped, as we did this morning but at a different roadside cafe for a half hour comfort break.

We would have much rather carried on straight through so that we could get back to Dubrovnik that little bit earlier but at least it gave the more elderly passengers on board an opportunity to empty their bowels in the privacy of proper toilets rather than face the embarrassment of stepping inside the flimsy cupboard on the coach.

Back on the bus we re-entered Croatia again and settled down to a wonderful scenic drive down the coast.

The Bay of Slano with its lush green hillside encircling crystal blue water was extremely picturesque.

Equally the views out into the Adriatic dotted by the tiny islands of Olipa, Tajan and Crkvina were quite beautiful.

We passed the Elaphite islands of Sipan, Lopud and then Kolocep. Each one bringing us nearer to Dubrovnik.

On Lopud we saw a quaint church spire with a sprinkling of red roof tiles. It made me think about the one place that I really would have liked to have visited if we had more time here on the Dalmatian coast and that was the town of Korcula.

It apparently is a warren of narrow medieval streets not too dissimilar to Dubrovnik and was the reputed birthplace of Marco Polo no less!

Unfortunately the Jadrolinija ferry that runs directly from Dubrovnik had not began its summer schedule yet (started 1st June) We could have taken a bus to Ploce then a short ferry from there but tomorrow was going to be a day of rest.

Today had been a very long day.

I have to admit that whilst the Elaphite islands were good company on the way back it was good to finally cross the suspension bridge into the port of Gruz.

We were actually dropped off directly outside the Grand Hotel Imperial. There was no need to catch another shuttle minibus.

Eleven hours after walking out through Pile Gate we returned within the city walls. It was now around 6pm.

We decided to walk straight to our apartment for a late siesta but on passing one of the bars in Buniceva square I couldn't resist the thought of an ice cold Karlovacko beer.
We only stopped for one drink but we didn't even finish that one. We were falling asleep at the table. Before we found ourselves snoring into our beer glasses we got up and headed for home, just around the corner.

We managed some sleep and feeling a little but more awake we went out for our supper at a restaurant called Poklisar. All the guide books recommended it and it had a "pizzeria" listed as one of its attributes.

It was down near the harbour which looked splendid in the evening light. Our table was in a lovely romantic spot nearest the water. We weren't alone however.

To our side was a table of eight Lithuanian Hells Angels sharing two bottles of vodka between them. One had already crashed 'n burned lying on the floor between us and the water, tucked away to the side of the ferry sales desks.

Despite their reputation they were all very civilised and well behaved, they didn't detract from a very pleasant atmosphere, despite the corpse in the corner.

I ordered the restaurant's signature pizza the self-titled Poklisar which I found to be very greasy and salty. It was just a plain tomato & mozzarella which is my favourite but the cheese must have been a domestic variety.

Julie fared a bit better with her Rib Eye Steak (Dalmatian Style) which was the said cut of meat hammered to a thin sheet and was served with swiss chard and boiled potatoes. It was Julie's tastiest meal of the trip so far, apart from perhaps the tandoori chicken and chips from Gaffe's Pub!

We didn't stay up late after we'd eaten. After a poor night's sleep, an early start and a long day on a coach trip our batteries were running low.

After a stroll around the absolutely gorgeous Stradun we were too tired for even a nightcap in Buniceva square.

Exhausted we retired to bed before 10pm.

Before falling asleep we phoned Hannah who told us Rory and Tyler were still awake and were raising hell in their bedroom.

I'm glad we're the grandparents!

Wednesday >

 


©Copyright 2000-2012 Colin Owen