Balkan Road Trip: Part 1

It’s been a busy few weeks here in Moscow. Just before I flew back, I learned that I would be taking on the high school art position full time, giving me five new classes to plan and students I hadn’t seen since their Grade 7 year. We’re two weeks in and I’m really enjoying being back at the high school level. The kids are really dedicated and it’s just fun seeing them take to new techniques and medium so quickly. It’s also a trip to see how they’ve changed (or haven’t) three years on…

I wanted to share the beginning of my road trip story, the portion from Split, Croatia to Mostar, Bosnia. The natural beauty of the region and the warmth of the people is what sits at the forefront of my memories. I can’t wait to go back.

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It’s been nearly a year since my friends Sarah and Ryan first suggested this road trip, as they were headed to a wedding in Sarajavo. I was curious what Split had to offer and have always wanted to see Sarajevo. So when school let out at the end of June, I hopped a flight from Moscow to Split. For the better part of a decade, Croatia has been Europe’s hotspot for international tourists. Separated from Italy by the relatively small Adriatic Sea, the country is known for it’s seafood, cliffside vineyards, and as a filming destination for many episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

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Our first stop was Diocletian’s Palace, the 4th century retirement home of the Roman emperor. He only lived in the completed palace for a handful of years but the walls and ruins are still very much the center of Old Town Split. We visited the site during the day but also at night, looking to escape the scorching heatwave moving across Europe.

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The warm light on the walls glows against the blue suede night sky.
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An oculus inside the compound. Archers would rain arrows down upon invaders trapped in this atrium.
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Night markets abound, featuring both groceries and souvenirs. Gelato was a staple of our wanderings!

Croatia’s seashore is famous the world over for it’s gorgeous turquoise water. Not far from our rented apartment was a nature reserve with a public beach open to all.

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Sarah and I beating the heat – the water really is that turquoise!

We toured the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, stopping for gelato both morning and night.

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This little one, only two, held up extremely well despite the heat and change of pace! She was a champ from start to finish.

The boardwalk in Split has a French Riviera look to it. While Diocletian’s Palace (seen in the background) once marked the waterline, the shore is now a large marina, serving both yachts and ferries, the latter of which take off for a number of coastal islands nearly every hour.

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We hopped one of those ferries for a day trip to Hvar, a popular tourist town with a fort to climb and delicious seafood to enjoy. We swam off the rocks in the harbor, again attempting to beat the heat. Hvar had some quaint side streets and, once you escaped the tourist paths, proved charming and picturesque.

Renting a car, we headed out to Mostar, planning to take our time along the way. My friend Sarah had done a wonderful job breaking up the journey to keep everyone, including the two year old, ocupado.

Klis was our first stop, just 8km outside of Split itself. Perched among the cliffs, this lookout castle dates back to the 10th century, with vertical drops enough to make your knees weak.

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A massive highlight of the trip for me were the Kravice Waterfalls, just over the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Stunningly beautiful and super refreshing as the temps were over 100 degrees that day. As we walked down the stone path to the falls, we could feel the mist cooling our legs.

 

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We rolled into Mostar in the late afternoon and it was immediately evident that we were in a different country. From the minarets dotting the skyline to the guy we paid to watch our car, it was clear we were not in Croatia anymore.

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Our guesthouse was just to the right of this yellow building, giving us an ace breakfast perch to watch the traffic on the famed Ottoman bridge.
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Parts of Mostar seemed right out of the 1980s; browns and dusty marigolds dotted the streets.
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Beautiful family ❤ Ryan, Isabella, and Sarah in Mostar, June 2019.
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Old Town Mostar was charming but slightly challenging to navigate thanks to the smooth stone walkways, well-trodden by the many visitors who had come before.

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Neither the food nor the view could be beat at our restaurant along the river. The cool of the water through the ravine was also a plus, granting us reprieve from the heat as the shadows grew long.

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This sign in English reminds visitors of the terrible atrocities suffered by the people of Mostar during the war. Mostar’s facades are also pockmarked by bullet holes and many buildings lie in relative ruin, with plants and trees sprouting where walls once stood.

As night fell, we heard the muezzin call echo across the banks of the river. Sitting out on the guesthouse balcony, we watched the lights pop on like fireflies dancing on the riverside.

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Our one night in Mostar was plenty of time to enjoy a delicious meal, peruse the market stalls, and break up the journey. After a good night’s sleep, we packed up and made tracks for Sarajevo along the most beautiful stretch of highway I can recall…

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To finish the story of this journey, find Part 2 here.

The pearl by the sea

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Dubrovnik is a gem perched on the southern-most tip of Croatia. Known for its fortressed walls, delicious seafood, and charming stairways, the town quickly engulfed us with its charm and hospitality.

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The Old Town stone walls, built in the Middle Ages, tower up to 82 feet in some places and are a great point of pride for Croatians — no marauding outsiders have ever successfully invaded them. We spent a grey morning walking the walls, with the cloudy sky over the ocean only adding to the mystic.

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Katie shooting for her portfolio as a Target influencer
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A guard post along the walls

Dubrovnik’s rocky coastline is so stunning that is has been adopted by HBO’s Game of Thrones. For the CGI-heavy series, Dubrovnik’s beauty is truly the stuff of fairytales.

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We climbed up to the Lovrijenac Fortress, as seen here from the Old Town wall, taking stairs from Pile Beach in the cove below.
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A Game of Thrones filming location, as seen from the walls of Old Town

Dubrovnik falls within a region of Croatia known as Dalmatia, which also includes a portion of the Bay of Kotor, which you may remember from my Montenegro post. Fun fact: the Dalmatian dog originated here.

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The region was once under the control of France, greedy for its natural resources and ports along the Adriatic Sea. Croatia did not declare independence until 1991, making it fairly young country.

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Croatia saw terrible war throughout the 1990s as Yugoslavia unraveled. Croatia was one of 6 republics of Yugoslavia which included Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. The Siege of Dubrovnik was a particularly awful period, taking place over 7 months beginning in the fall of 1991. Residents of Old Town faced terrible conditions as there was a communication blackout and supplies were extremely scarce. By Dec 1991, 19,000 people had been evacuated from the port of Dubrovnik with the help of ships flying the UNICEF flag.

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As we walked the Old Town wall, it was truly inconceivable to think of 3000+ mortars raining down upon the terracotta roof tiles.

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You can see which buildings were damaged based on the age of the tiles.

Katie and I did a lot of research about the war while in Montenegro and Croatia. What seems clear is that the conflict was not black and white. ESPN’s 30 for 30 episode entitled  “Once Brothers” offers a heartbreaking take on the fallout of the war through the eyes of Vlade Divac, the former NBA player and Olympic medalist. As the episode points out, “war crimes were committed on both sides”. Many different interests with no clear winner.

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Our courtyard within the Old Town walls

Know as the Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik has a lot to offer, especially in April before the cruise ships have begun to come into port. Highlights included a cathedral with a Titian triptych on the alter, hot burek from the bakery, and delicious Croatian wine.

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burek: spinach and cheese deliciousness
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A wine-tasting at Skaramuca

The rocky soil of the region, combined with the reflection off the rocks and water, mean the grapes get 3x the amount of sun as your average vineyard. With all the delicious seafood, I enjoyed the white posip.

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With many places to choose from in Old Town, the Pubo Dubrovnik proved our favorite.

We also took a day trip to Lokrum, known as the Emerald Island. Just a 10 minute ferry ride from Old Town, Lokrum is good for quick trip and a walk around the island. This was certainly a nice way to escape the tour bus crowd.

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A Lokrum Island resident

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For Game of Thrones fans, I snapped this epic pic at an exhibition about the filming of the series in the region

Travel Tips:

If you take the bus from Tivat or Kotor to Dubrovnik, anticipate nearly an hour extra for border control. Croatia being an EU country only exacerbates the wait. On the return, you sail through relatively unimpeded. 4 hours from Tivat to Dubrovnik’s Port Bus Terminal; just 3 hours from the Port to Tivat. 45 gorgeous miles. This is Tivat’s bus terminal – by the way – please ignore what Google Maps tells you. About 18€ each way. Euros are sometimes taken in Dubrovnik but the Croatian kuna (HRK) is preferred.

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