Italy to Croatia to Bosnia

Trip Start Aug 09, 2009
Trip End Oct 23, 2009

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Who knew what a journey it could be crossing three countries in one day.  I mean back home we cross three states effortlessly.  It was one of those days where somehow everything worked out perfectly even though I started out without a plan, little research, and just the hope that I would eventually end up in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Even by my standards the journey was nuts.    Had good ole Ryanair not arrived thirty minutes early from Pisa to Zadar this entire day would have crapped out early on right there in the parking lot of the Zadar Airport.

Knowing that a bus ran from the Zadar Airport to the main bus station, I searched and found the battered yellow beast idling in front of baggage claim.  I assumed it was the right bus because a) it said Zadar in the window, b) it was where it should have been, and c) it was the only bus within a mile.  You know what they say about those who just makes and ass of u and me.  The driver waived his finger at me, curiously like the French do and said no.  I pointed to the cardboard Zadar sign in one last ditch attempt and he said no again and shooed me away. 

A Croatian woman asked this old man if it was indeed the bus and evidently he told her he didn't know what time he was leaving or where he was going.  She told me we weren't going to waste any time with this idiot and that we could split a taxi with others.  Dividing the fare by four worked out the same as the bus anyway and got us quickly into town.  Another good omen for the upcoming adventure.

My first stop was the ticket window and I found no direct buses go to Mostar, but via Split it would be smooth sailing.  The next Split bus was about to roll from Platform 1 and I could buy a ticket on board.  I got there just as they were about to leave and the driver told me in German no more room.  I told him I would stand until the first stop when a seat would open up.  He said to wait for the next bus and to leave him alone.  He slammed the door in my face and began to back up.

It was one of those moments where you just want to yell, "Oh hell the f*#k no" and I wasn't letting him move without me.  I took the palm of my hand and started banging it on the door and yelled, "hey, hey, hey..stop that bus" in German.  He stopped and actually let me on but with a lot of fanfare of course.  He muttered something about "Amerikaner" under his breath and I thought to myself you got that right buddy...screw you and let me on.  This Amerikaner has places to be, and your bus is taking me there.

Miraculously there was somehow an open seat right there in the first row and with my bag safely stowed below the bus off we went down the Dalmatian Coast.  Honestly I wasn't all that impressed with it, especially having been to the crown jewel of the coast down hundreds of miles further south in Montenegro.  In Croatia the coast starts off flat with some hills but the landscape is mostly desert like and not much to look it.  The water though is another story.  It looks like the Tidy Bowl Man dumped one of those blue tablets right in and let it mellow a while.  Do people even use those things anymore?  The clear water was even more incredible if the sun hit it at the right angle.

Three hours later we rolled into Split which is Croatia's second largest city.  Maybe bounced is the better word since the roads of potholed crap and a bus with a suspension all shot to hell make for quite the ride.  Of course Split has the ubiquitous Stalinist highrises that always fascinate me on the outskirts of town but the center is a wonderfully preserved time capsule of Roman ruins.  In fact the Roman emperor Diocletian started building a palace there in 305AD for his retirement and this structure is the heart of the old city.  People live, eat, work and play within its walls right down there on the Adriatic waterfront.  It's amazing that something build almost two thousand years ago has stood the test of time yet Yugoslav creations from 30 years ago are crumbling earthward one piece of stucco at a time.

With an hour to spare between buses I did a speedtour of the old town and Diocletian's retirement village (which was enough time actually).  It was too hot to really do much and I didn't want to get even more foul and nasty than I already was from the journey.   I am sure someone in Croatia is telling his buddies that Americans are nasty sweaty smelly messes.  Oh yeah...I even used my newfound knowledge from PIsa and spotted a "Campanile" in the middle of Big D's village.  How better to celebrate such a find by smugly looking at the tacky tourists knowing that I now possessed a vast arsenal of architectural terms that the masses surely didn't.  Take that you Russians and Germans on your overpriced tour packages!! 

I had put my bag in storage at the left luggage office with a woman whose personality was as about as charming as a boulder, and I needed to face her again to retrieve it. She was built like a Mack Truck and wasn't one I'd want to tangle with.  Anxious to retrieve my bag with only a few minutes before the bus was leaving, I went to her window where she ignored me.  Remember my lessons on how to deal with the Marseillans?  They proved to be timely here in Croatia as well, and I knocked on the counter with my hand.  I guess the noise finally got to here because she put her magazine down and finally waddled over.  All she said was, "What?" with a nasty toothless scowl that made me so glad I have all my teeth.  Thank you mom and dad for the braces and dental work when I was a kid but I digress. 

"What" you can do for me lady is get my freakin' bag.  You know why I am here.  She rolled her eyes, reached for the bag and brought it to the window and asked for my receipt which in the space of an hour I had lost somehow.  She knew it was my bag alright but wanted the receipt for bureaucratic reasons I guess.   Actually she wasn't budging without it, and she held the bag just inches beyong my reach.  The bus was about to leave and I needed that bag and was faced with having to tangle with her after all.  I banged on the counter again to get a man's attention who was also in the bagroom and she just pursed her lips and stared at me.

She finally quit playing games and laughed and told me to pay if I wanted my bag.  I gave her the money I owed and she flicked her wrist at me with contempt when she delivered my change.  Who cares.  I had my bag and that was all that matters.  She's probably been doing that job since Tito came to power, but I suppose it is a step above being the toilet matron.  Maybe bag bitch and all the luxuries and entrapments associated with sitting in a hot wood box is a promotion.  Who knows.

About four hours later we rolled into my destination of Mostar.  Somehow everything just came together perfectly and I even got the added bonus of some time in Split.  Coming in Mostar's main road, the buildings are a mix of bombed out war ruins and perfectly normal buildings that would be at home anywhere.  Even darkness couldn't hide all the battle scars.  I had a first choice of hostel but for some reason the site I use wouldn't accept a reservation for it.  I even had one of my crude maps ready to go and set out on foot to find it without a knowing if thy had room.  Keep in mind the streets are dark with no signage and it was 10pm in a strange city.

Half an hour later I was still wandering around town and was in the center where people were sitting at outside cafes and a loud outdoor dance party was going on.  I found some English speaking teenagers and they tried to help me but didn't know the street I needed.  It was strange to see people satisfying their nightly entertainment needs amidst buildings that were bombed out.  They asked if I wanted to join them which was nice but I had them by about 20 years, and I don't think dancing with luggage makes quite the statement I want to.

My directions written in doctor's handwriting were so bad that I couldn't even read the street names I had scratched out above various lines supposed to be depicting streets.  I had also written out directions and the first step was to turn left out of the train/bus station and turn right at the first street.  What didn't click in my head last night is that "street" here can mean a narrow unlit alley with war torn remnants of what used to be a structure. 

Eventually I found the hostel through the help of several English speaking people who had pointed me in all directions of the compass.  I finallz arrived and found the owner working on the building.  He told me he was closed for a week because he was renovating and expanding.  He took pity on me I guess because it was 11pm, I looked like a mess and needed a place to crash.  He let me stay there for ten Euros and I had the whole place to myself.  Miran's Hostel was the place...He is an awesome guy and even more awesome to let me stay there.  Now if this had been Atlanta at 11pm, I would have been robbed and jacked up within my first five minutes of walking around lost.   Think about that and how safe these cities are over here.

So this place called Mostar with its friendly people on the Neretva River means Bridge Keeper.  Why would it be called that you asked?  Of course I have the answer for you after some careful research.  Why there is an old bridge called the Stari Most (Old Bridge) that dates back to the 16th Century Ottoman Empire.  The people of Mostar were the keepers of this important link across the river.  Stari Most had stood throughout time across the river and had survived countless wars.  But on November 9, 1993 (at 10:15am to be exact) the Croatian Defence Council destroyed this landmark on purpose.  It has since been rebuilt using the same techniques as originally.  In addition 26 of Mostar's 27 mosques dating back to the Ottoman Empire were destroyed as well.  Churches stand side by side just as in Sarajevo. 

I won't bore you with details but just know the city was under siege for 18 months from 1992 to 1993 when Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence from Yugoslavia.  What were you doing during that time?  Did you know this was even going on?  I don't think it was much more than an occasional item on the tv news for me.  All over Bosnia and Herzegovina hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and ethnic cleansing was rampant.  As a result of the displacements there are parts of the country that are now purely of Serbian descent and others that are purely Muslim Bosniak.  This is the same country we visited a few weeks ago when I was in Sarajevo if all this sounds familiar.

Mostar is a mix of Muslim and Christians who just want to live in peace and is slowly on the mend.  One street will appear prefectly normal but round a corner and a block of ruins greets you.  Why come here then?  The city has a history interesting to me and I think it is important to see a side of Europe beyond Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower.  What I see here leaves much more of a lasting impression than spending an afternoon looking at London. 

This is the domain of backpackers and the mainstream tourists would never think of coming here, much less walk down a street that was once the Front Line in the war.  It's a shame really because they are missing out on a human interest story like nowhere else.  I know it's not everyone's cup of tea though and travel is all about finding what interests you.  I am totally in my element here.

I just admire how Mostar's people go about their daily lives amidst all the ruins and rebuilding.  People were partying last night when I arrived and this morning it was business as usual wherever I walked.  I am sure that seeing the buildings in rubble day out numbs any shock factor.

I am pressing on later to more destinations unknown.  I just know I need to be in Sofia, Bulgaria to catch a flight on the 29th and its an open road to get there.

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