The Balkans – Day 8

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Sept 23 – Saturday

Map Link

It was time to leave the coast behind. We packed up our gear and brought it down to the bikes before popping into the hotel’s restaurant for a quick breakfast. We had eaten there the day before and while we were not impressed, it was free and handy and we knew now what to expect.

A quick fill-up of the tanks was a precaution before we left town – I didn’t know what to expect once we left behind the coast, but I didn’t think that we’d find much fuel. The road turned inland and immediately started to rise. The forested slopes gave periodic views of the shoreline below, but the road was interesting enough to keep my eyes from wandering too far.

And a few minutes later we were offered the most beautiful scene: the road was etched into the side of the cliff and other than a guardrail, there was nothing more to impede the view over the side. The green forested slopes were far below us, brushing up against the blue sea. Coastal towns and fire burns added more color to the scene. Ahead (and above us) I could see that the road bored through a tunnel before disappearing out of sight.

A look down at the coast

Cutting into the cliff

The other side of the cliff

Another look down

Now we’re heading inland!

The landscape was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was a blend of whites and greens: the thick green brush was interspersed with piles of white rocks. Scattered hills rose like bubbles on the surface of an otherwise unremarkable land. There were few buildings along this route: any structures that we saw were huddled together in tight communities. We saw no gas stations here; filling up on the coast had been a good idea.

Bumpy landscape

Sunshine!

Ravča, Croatia

Dan had mentioned that the town of Imotski (Croatia) was said to be an interesting place and that it would be worth a visit. It was “sort of” on our way and since we didn’t have far to go today, we had plenty of time to check it out. But in order to get to this Croatian town we had to leave Croatia. It was time to cross into a new country: Bosnia & Herzegovina!

The border crossing was small and there were just a couple of cars in front of us. Dan and I pulled up together, passports in hand. But this time another document was requested: our green insurance papers. This was the first time that anyone has ever asked for this and it threw me off. We dug ours out, showed them to the guards and were soon ushered on our way.

The change was immediately apparent: there was a feeling of orderliness that had been missing in Croatia and the increase evidence of human involvement with the land was clear. The roads were empty and delightful to ride on, although later we noticed that the drivers in Bosnia gave the impression that they were all late for something. We meandered our way through further green countryside, but now that we were past the coastal mountains, we found more agricultural use of the land and more towns. I even saw two cows, which says something about the lack of livestock so far on this trip.

One of many vegetable stands on the road side

We had come to the end of a narrow valley and I could not see where the road continued. The only thing that I could make out was a wall of rocks and trees that stood before us and what might be a narrow road that snaked its way up the side. I did some research once I was home and looked up where we had been (since I was just blindly following my GPS). I hadn’t realized that we were so close to an interesting stop: Peć Mlini. I copied down the Google Translated wiki page on what’s there:

Peć Mlini is a hamlet of Drinovci located at the source of the Tihaljine river basin . The river rises from the cave at a height of 150 m of tall reddish limestone rocks and flows down a number of smaller waterfalls. Peć Mlini is a wonderful excursion destination. Downstream of the Tihalj source were once 7 water mills, after which the settlement was named. There are many springs: Bartulovo vrilo, Jurić vrilo, Rašić vrilo, Modro oko, Nenač, and also several smaller streams: Jakšenica, Nezdravica and Dunaj.

From the internet

View from above the Peć Mlini hydroelectric plant and the road we came in on

View from halfway up – it was a narrow road!

The first car we’d seen in a long time

I expected to see a reservoir once we got to the top of the canyon wall but there was no indication of any water whatsoever. It was the strangest hydroelectric plant I had ever seen.

As we left behind the mysterious Peć Mlini, the GPS suggested that I take a left off the backroad we were on, and move onto even smaller backroads. The new roads were quite pleasant and isolated, and much to my surprise, some were unpaved as well.

Country living in Bosnia

Dirt roads and puddles

A view of the countryside

Goats!

We rounded a bend in the road and found a border crossing back into Croatia. This wasn’t completely unexpected, since Imotski is in Croatia. But what we didn’t expect was to be denied entry.

The younger guard took Dan’s Swiss ID card and looked at it carefully. He called out to his older colleague and they discussed the card at some length. I sat on my bike, passport in hand, waiting for a decision to be made. The younger guard came back to us and explained that this particular crossing is for “locals only”, and unless we were residents of one of the villages on the other side of the border, we wouldn’t be allowed to cross. It was an unusual situation but it was understandable. With smiles all around, we tucked our IDs back into our pockets, turned around retraced our steps through the countryside.

The GPS recalculated and gave us an alternative route to Imotski. We reached a different Croatian border crossing and took our place in line. It seemed like a long time, but it was probably only about fifteen minutes. Dan suggested that maybe Imotski was not worth the hassle of waiting in line, since we’d just have to cross back over when we were done there. But I said No, we were this close. What was a few minutes waiting in line? The border crossing was a snap once we got to the guard booth and then it was just a few minutes to Imotski.

Crossing into Croatia

Dan had done some reading on Imotski and pointed out that there were two well-known lakes near the town, the Red Lake and the Blue Lake. We passed through the town and found a pull-off to the Blue Lake overlook. We took this opportunity to have a bite to eat as well, which was a good thing since there wasn’t much else to see. Blue Lake is actually a sinkhole in the mountains and the water level varies with the season. Coming so late in the year meant that if there was any water left, it was so far down so as not to be seen from our vantage point. There were paths that one could pay for, giving access to walk ways with better views, but we didn’t feel like investing that much time in a sinkhole.

Blue Lake – somewhere down there

Just up the road from Blue Lake is Red Lake. Even though we were uncertain if there would be much more to see there, we took the chance and drove up the road to check it out. Well, at least we could see the water in Red Lake, although the name was deceiving.

Red Lake

And to think that these lakes are part of day trip tours of the area!

Evidence of recent fires were seen throughout our trip

The forest fire really lets you see the incredible quantity of stones scattered throughout the region

Topana castle

The valley across from Imotski

After the unfulfilling lake stops we thought we’d make an effort to see the town and the dominating Topana castle, dating from Ottoman times. We retraced out steps, looking for the way that would take us from the main road and up to the old town center and the castle. Unfortunately, every road that I tried was either one way (the wrong way), or blocked by parked cars. I was getting frustrated, and after the disappointment of the lakes, I was ready to give up and continue on our way. Dan didn’t mind aborting the hunt and we turned our bikes east again.

I had calculated a different route out of Croatia to avoid the same crossing we had taken in – it is always nice to see something new, plus I was hoping that the lines would be shorter. And the lines were shorter! We barely had time to get our passports out before it was our turn to pull up to the booth. I was ready with my insurance papers, but they were not needed this time.

Heading for Bosnia & Herzegovina

Crossing back into Bosnia & Herzegovina

The next hour was spent on very scenic and relaxing roads. They were fast and dry, and the sunshine overhead was a welcome change from the snow, rain and wind that we’d had for most of our trip so far.

We arrived at our destination early in the afternoon: we would be spending the night in Mostar. I had reserved us a room via AirB&B primarily based on the view from the room, but the reviews were awesome, so I figured that it would be a good choice. It was.

Approaching Mostar

Ancient Chestnut trees lines the streets

The view from our room

Our host and hostess were both incredibly welcoming and sad to know that we would be only staying one night. After getting our bikes and ourselves settled in, we immediately set out to explore the city. There was so much history to this area – and such recent history, too! I have never been anywhere where a war was fought during my lifetime.

We were a short walk from the market area of Mostar, but what I did not realize until later was that most (all?) of the buildings that I saw had been rebuilt since the war. The Siege of Mostar in 1992 took a heavy toll on the city and its inhabitants. No one was safe: three quarters of the residents fled to escape the bombing, leaving behind their homes and possessions. A year later, the war started up again and further destruction was rained down upon the shattered city.

Rebuilt buildings

The Stari Most bridge as it stands today

And as it looked during the war, before it was completely destroyed

For those who want to know / see more, I found this video that seems to have some good coverage of the bridge’s destruction and the siege itself. Of course the entire war was much more comprehensive and devastating than the tiny part that took place in Mostar, but our concentration was focused on Mostar, since that’s where we were.

Now we were in the market area on the west side of the river and the narrow cobblestone streets were packed with – you guessed it! – tourists! Once again I was glad that we were traveling late in the year, as more people than this would be unbearable. As it was, it was difficult to stop and actually look into some of the shops along the street as there were just too many people milling about. Not all streets were the same, but there was still an overall feeling of “crowds” that afternoon.

Looking downriver at Stari Pazar (bridge); that’s our BnB, the white building on the right closest to the bridge

Looking upriver

Upriver, east side

When I looked at pictures of the bridge of Mostar, it just looked like a standard arch bridge over a river. Nothing too special (other than the age of the bridge, and that it was the widest bridge of its type when it was built). But still: its just a bridge, right? What I never considered was what the surface of the bridge was like. I guess I never thought about it, but I was really surprised to find that there were ridges of stones running across the width of the footpath. I found it difficult to walk on this surface, as the spacing was a little “off” for a comfortable stride, but I can imagine that if it was wet then these would be a welcome addition.

Raised stones on the bridge surface

While the city of Mostar has rebuilt many of its buildings, it has not been able to heal the wounds of fighting a war within itself. As the war was a complex one, I found this website that does a good job of Cliffs Notes on how it affected (and continues to affect) Mostar. The biggest take away at this point is that the city is still divided, primarily along the Neretva River. The Christians lay claim to the western portion and the Muslims dominate the eastern side. While walking through the city, Dan and I could see a noticeable difference between the two sides, especially once you got away from the touristy market stalls.

Market stalls on the east side of the Neretva River

Traditional headstones on the eastern side

Modern cemetery – most of the stones are from 1993

One of many still-empty buildings, pocked with bullet and mortar holes

Back to the eastern market area

On our way back to the bridge

Our hostess had highly recommended dinner at a place called the Hindin Han. We didn’t know anything about it, but since it was recommended we figured that we’d give it a try. We had scoped it out earlier in the afternoon so we knew directly where to go now that it was approaching dinner time.

The Hindin Han

Technically it was still a little early to eat, but the small snack we had at Imotski was fast fading. We were sat quickly, but then had to wait a long time before someone came to actually take our order. When our waiter came, he first asked if we would like to move to a different table, one with a slightly better view. Happy with the new table, we asked him about a couple of the dishes that we had in mind. He immediately pointed to one and said “Get this one! It is enough for the two of you!” With his enthusiastic recommendation we placed our order and waited.

Our new table, overlooking a tributary stream to the Neretva River

What arrived at our table was amazing: it was a massive platter of french fries absolutely covered in five different types of meat. There were some bits that could be considered “salad”, just so that it looked healthier than it was. We divided up the meat and just left the fries to soak in the juices that covered the platter, helping ourselves when we needed more.

The Vegetarian Platter /s

After we had stuffed ourselves and pushed ourselves away from the table we felt like we should walk a little bit more, to let things settle. We hadn’t be down to the river bank itself, so that’s where we headed. It was a nice view of the bridge “from below”, giving us another perspective of the area.

Looking back at the restaurant we had just left

Along the waterfront were the cleaned up remains of some war-destroyed buildings. They serve as a stark reminder of the city’s recent history.

On our way back to our BnB I finally got a picture of a popular grocery store we had seen throughout our trip. I am not sure how the locals pronounce it, or if it means something else to them, but every time I saw the sign I was struck with the urge to growl “CONSUME!” Ok, maybe it is funny only in my head.

And so ended our day in Mostar. Tomorrow we would move on to something new!

Day 9

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