Our final day in Dubrovnik was meant to simultaneously be our first day in Bosnia. We had planned to get up early, grab our rental car from town, and be on our way before noon. But as Robert Burns would say “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft agely, An’ lea’e us naught but grief and pain, For promised joy!” We did get manage to get up early, but that was the only aspect of our plan that worked out properly.
Our plan was to pick up the rental car from a hotel a 25min walk from where we were staying. We were looking forward to the walk before being cooped up in the car all day. With the rainy days gone each morning was becoming progressively hotter, and this morning was no exception. Dripping in sweat from the heat, humidity, and uphill exertion we finally arrived at the hotel only to find that our rental car wasn’t there. Instead, it was at the airport a 35-40min drive the city in the opposite direction of where we were going that day. The woman “helping” us was probably the least helpful person we encountered our entire time in all of the Balkans. She couldn’t be bothered to call the airport office to let them know we were coming and with our reservation up we were at risk of losing our car. We were advised to “figure it out,” but all I wanted to “figure out” was which car in the parking lot was hers so we could take it instead. Just so you know, it isn’t cheap to get a last-minute car to take you to the airport. Most have to be booked a full day in advance and taxi’s are out of the question due to their outrageous costs. With no help and no cell service couldn’t find the bus schedule either. This was a “we’re in a pickle” moment. To top it all off we were supposed to checkout of the apartment in less than an hour and we had to walk back to the place. Feeling the pressure we hustled back to the apartment and arrived, pouring sweat by this point, about two minutes before our host came to check us out. After explaining our situation to him he offered to take us to the airport himself. We couldn’t thank this saintly man enough! Without him I have no idea what we would have done.
By the time we got to the airport, checked out our rental car, and finally got on the road we were about three hours behind schedule. Initially we had planned to make a stop off at the Dervish House in Blagaj before arriving in Mostar. Now we had no time for side trips but instead had to drive straight to Mostar. Even then we would maybe, just maybe, squeeze in right on time to meet our host as we had previously arranged. Armed with no GPS and no data we set off on our road trip using the blurry images of an unloaded Google Map and the screen shots we had taken during our planning of the trip.
Our drive started off smoothly enough. We were so happy and thankful to be in a car on the road that the first hour or so flew by under blue skies wrapped in beautiful scenery. By hour two we noticed that the skies were becoming progressively less blue and more along the lines of black centering over the mountains Google was telling us we had to drive up and over. The first mountain road Google suggested we take was a narrow, one lane gravel path to this dilapidated border crossing station. The glass windows were busted out and nobody was in sight. However the barrier was down so we didn’t try to drive around. That was a good choice because after about a minute of sitting there scratching our heads a guard finally came out of the busted building to tell us that this crossing was strictly for local Bosnian and Croatian folks. It went something like this:
Us: “Uhh…hi…. (trying to hand him our passports)”
Guard: “You can not pass here.”
Guard: “You can not pass here. Only for locals. You must go back. Go to bigger crossing”
Guard: “Back. Back and make right. Can’t miss signs.”
Us: “Uhhh…ok, thank you (making awkward u-turn around guard house)”
Needless to say this caused some issues as we had no service and no way to navigate a new route. Luckily the road was pretty well marked and we could follow the vague directions we had been given to formulate a new route on the fly.
This new route would also be taking us up and over the mountains. The clouds were becoming darker as we drove and we knew the sky was bound to open any minute. At the next border crossing station we were able to cross and within 5 minutes saw our first police officer. Our Croatian host had warned us that we could run into some trouble with them as they liked to pull over tourists to try and get money off them, but the officer was too deep in conversation to pay us much mind. As we had no issues with the police (or any of the people in Bosnia) I can’t say if our host was stereotyping based some deep seeded trust issues between groups in that region, or if there was a cause for concern. Either way we thankfully didn’t have to find out. Our experience is that the more poor a country is, the more likely you are to be mysteriously pulled over and as mysteriously released after a small kickback. So just be cautious if you do take a road trip in Bosnia, and be sure to turn your lights on as it’s the law!
As we made our way crawling higher and higher into the mountain slopes the sky decided it was time to go, and dumped all she had been carrying on us. The rain was so thick we could barely see, and the small road we were on wasn’t the best quality. We opted to take it slow. After about 15mins the storm passed and we could see again revealing a beautiful mountain countryside with an occasional village breaking up the sparse landscape. As is the case with most windy mountain back roads it was slow going all the way to our junction with the main road leading into Mostar. Driving through the hills we were astounded at the beautiful sea of mountain tops around us as we drove down and out of the range. It has been a beautiful drive, but now we were extremely late for our scheduled arrival with no way of letting our host know.
We were about 2.5hrs later in our arrival in Mostar than we had intended. The late start and mountain road had put us into town closer to 7pm that night and we were feeling frazzled. We had caught back up with the storm so it was raining again while we searched for our lodging. Mostar is a city that suffered some real damage during the Bosnian War and they are still working to put the pieces back together again. It was shocking the amount of damage to the infrastructure still visible today and much of the roads into the Old Town area were under construction. Bridges that used to be bridges are closed to cars, and at one point we were basically driving on a sidewalk trying to figure out where we were going. After pulling over into a random pay-for-parking lot the kindest man helped us. We asked him if he knew where our lodging was, and while he didn’t he showed us where we could pick up wifi to check our messages. He then called our host to explain what had happened and where we could meet her. Without him I’m pretty sure we would have never found our lodging and I can’t thank him enough for his generosity to us. This was the second lifesaver of the day we encountered and a huge reminder to be kind and helpful when you can.
After connecting with our host and apologizing profusely for our tardy arrival we were checked in and ready for a hot shower (we had gotten completely soaked talking to the man in the parking lot). With that we mustered up some energy to go and get dinner in the Old Town. Historically, the Old Town of Mostar was a border town of sorts for the Ottoman Empire after they invaded the Balkans, and its most famous landmark remains the Mostar Bridge. Designed by Mimar Hayruddin, the apprentice and student of the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, it stood for over 400yrs before being destroyed by Croat forces during the Croat-Bosniak War in 1993. After the Croat-Bosniak War conflicts ended the city was virtually divided along the Neretva River with the Catholics on the west side and the Muslims on the east. The two sides were basically separated for 10yrs before the Mostar Bridge was reconstructed in 2004. The bridge now stands as a symbol of hope and unity between the two communities.
By the time we ventured out for dinner the storm seemed to have moved on for the night and we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets of our lives. Burning orangey peach, red, pink, violet, and gold it looked like the sky had been set on fire. The colors reflected off the Neretva River in a swirl of icy blue and bright orange as we stood along the old walkways watching the show. We worked our way through the old bazaar as the shopkeepers were closing up for the day and walked out onto the arch of the bridge just as the call to prayer began. Neither of us had ever heard the call to prayer before and it made quite the impact as we listened and continued to watch the sunset. When the prayer finished the sun was all but set and we were really feeling the hunger pains. Before setting out we had looked up a restaurant called Tima-Irma in town that had rave reviews and we set our sights there.
If you visit Mostar do yourself this favor, eat at Tima-Irma. This was unquestionably the best food we ate in all of the Balkans (sorry Ladovina). Owned and operated by the restaurants namesake Irma, this woman had worked there for over 20yrs. Irma is a vibrant and talented woman, who speaks excellent English, that LOVES what she does. When we sat down by the grill she was manning we watched in amazement as she pumped out order after order, her hands tougher than a baker’s pulling items barehanded straight off the grill. The quality of meat she serves is the highest with it coming from local farms, the cheese we had was made especially for her restaurant by a local family, and the amount of attention she applies in plating the dishes is on par with a 5-star stateside restaurant (we know all this because we chatted with her all throughout dinner). And if that isn’t enough for you they give you a free beer on your way out the door. We loved Tima-Irma and hope to make it back there one of these days….
With our bellies pushed to the breaking point and three beers deep we were very ready for bed. A quick detour to see the bridge illuminated at night was all we could manage before heading back. What had started out as a mess of a morning in Dubrovnik had transitioned to an evening of bliss in Mostar. Funny the difference a day makes when you stop to think about it. Back at the apartment I don’t think it took more than one minute before we were sleeping like rocks.