ll Nick's Croatian Adventure! 

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Fri 4th June 

I’m writing this in a café in Split, having moved on from Dubrovnik and having had  an interesting couple of days in Sarajevo in Bosnia, and travelling around Montenegro. To get to Sarajevo, you have to go back up the coast through a little enclave of Bosnia on the coast, which bisects the Dubrovnik region, separating Dubrovnik the town, from the rest of the province.

 I had my first interesting encounter within 20 kms of the border. There were 2 cars in front of me, the first was turning right and the second had practically stopped behind him. So, being impatient, I decided to overtake, over the single white line. Of course, there just happened to be a Bosnian police patrol right in front of me, so they flagged me down and pulled me over. The guy had possibly the worst teeth in the history of dentistry and was tutting hard through the remnants of a couple of molars. He was a big, shaven-headed brute and I had visions of Midnight Express!!. He then asked for my green card, which of course I couldn’t find at first, but after much ferreting through all my various insurance cards and bits and bobs I finally located it and passed it over. More sucking through those teeth! “No Bosnia-Herzegovina…” He passed it back to me and sure enough there’s a big cross through BiH! I hadn’t even thought to check it. I have to admit I was naïve enough to think a green card was valid everywhere, but obviously not, so dear reader, learn from my mistakes….

 "Serious, very serious, 2 offences”. How much is this going to cost me was my first thought. His mate then came over and they jabbered away to each other, probably trying to size up how much they thought I’d wear. Matey boy then spoke to me in English, telling me I’d have to go back to the border to get a green card. I asked them if they couldn’t give me the card and I could pay them (off). No, I had to go back to the border. Nobody had yet mentioned a figure, so I kept schtumm and they just gave me my papers back and waved me off . I was fully expecting them to wait for me to return and to pull me over on my way back. I got back to the border and went and asked for an extension to my green card and the border policeman looked at it and said “Bravo”, as though I were the most honest upstanding citizen of the British Empire – I really thought he was going to pat me on the back! I went and had a coffee and suffice to say that Billy Twoteeth and his mate had moved on by the time I got back.

 The countryside in Bosnia was becoming progressively greener. I was travelling along a valley, by the green waters of the river Neretvana. There was a lot more evidence of the fighting by now – burnt out and shelled houses, pot-holes in the road. There were a lot of people just sitting around by  the side of the road, with nothing to do. There were also more farm animals. I had been surprised by the lack of animals around Dubrovnik, but there were sheep and goats in Bosnia, mainly running free across the road! After a couple of hours I got to Mostar. I’m not sure why, but I had a vision of Mostar as a  small old town with Minarets and Mosques on one side and Catholic churches on the other. In fact it’s actually quite a big place – or was once. Now, it’s just a mess. There are huge holes in a lot of the buildings and these presumably will have to be pulled down in due course. There was also a lot more evidence of the SFOR forces and UNHCR  around. The various nationalities that make up the force seem to have their own little regions to patrol. Around Mostar for some reason it was the Spanish, in Sarajevo it was the Italians (there was a big sign for the Italian Battle Group – surely a misnomer!) with the Germans around the Republika Srpska – they probably feel that the Italians wouldn’t be sufficient deterrent to any renegade elements..

The scenery was starting to change again, becoming more mountainous and in the distance there was snow on the mountain tops. The houses were more like Alpine chalets by now and there was a definite nip in the air. There were a couple of squaddies on the road thumbing a lift. I stopped, thinking they were Spanish, but they were actually Bosnian, so practised my Bosnian on them – I didn’t realise when I started that I’d actually be able to claim I speak, Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian!

Sarajevo was quite a surprise- I had been expecting a war-zone. There is still a lot of evidence of the fighting on the outskirts – typical Soviet era high-rises with bullet holes and evidence of shelling, but the centre of the town, particularly the old town, has been pretty much restored. It’s a strange mixture of East and West. The old town is very Turkish in feel – wooden buildings with a protruding extension above the first floor and domed copper rooves. There were loads of metal-working shops, with tea-sets and embossed trays. There were a lot more roma as well and the people looked much more Turkish, lots of moustaches in evidence (mainly but not exclusively, on the men!). There are Mosques and Minarets dotted about the old town, and the streets are paved with pink granite or something similar. Then, abruptly the old town stops and there is a Central European late 19th Century part, full of imposing 4 or 5 storey stuccoed town houses. The mosques give way to Catholic and Orthodox churches, the streets are wider and there are more squares. There are more municipal buildings and theatres. I think the thing that most surprised me was the sheer number of people. The streets were absolutely full of people taking an evening stroll, lingering in cafes (everybody seems to take about 3 hours over a coffee, meeting friends and chatting). I was also struck by the numbers of children and young people. It was only a Tuesday night, but the place was heaving with people out on the town. It was like the West End on a busy Saturday (sorry to be so parochial).

I got a room about a 5 minute stroll away from the centre with a garage to park the car, which I was glad about. I was travelling light and had left most of my luggage, including the bike, back in Dubrovnik, but had seen a car with a smashed sidelight, so wasn’t comfortable with the idea of leaving the car on the streets. The house was up in one of the hills and afforded a good view over the whole city. There are a lot of cemeteries in evidence, particularly Moslem ones and every bit of green space on the one hill seemed to be taken up with them. But the place did seem relaxed. I realize that I don’t know the history of the place and the enmity that may have built up over the centuries, but I still can’t fathom how these people ended up killing each other. Maybe they don’t really know either.

I wanted to carry on to Montenegro to have a look down there and according to my map I needed to head for a place called Foca. Of course there weren’t any signs for Foca so I asked a few people and they sent me off to Foca, via Gorazde. Within a very short distance of the town I entered the Republika Srpska. I had no idea it was that close to the city. The mountains were now covered in trees, everywhere, some of which were a strange browny, reddy colour – I couldn’t work out whether this was the natural colouring or whether they were diseased and the leaves had turned brown prematurely. Everything was now written in Cyrillic and this was making navigation more difficult as I can’t read it properly! I saw my first cows – again on the road, nonchalantly wandering across. The first place I went through was Pale. This rang bells, as the headquarters of the rebel Republika Srpska where Mladic and his cronies were holed up, but am not sure that it’s the same place – so no doubt David Austin OBE (that’s right I know a real proper oboe) will correct me if I’ve got my politics and or geography confused here.

I then had my first encounter with the local Serb police force as I got flagged down for speeding. My own fault – after 20m kms of winding hills to finally get about 2k of straight road was just too much temptation. “Speeding – serious!” How come everybody knows the English for serious! The guy that stopped me wanted to look in the boot. “Alcohol, Marijuana?”. Just a couple of ks of smack under the spare wheel officer – oh and about 3000 E’s in the glove box, but nothing serious… I finally got off with a 15 Euro fine (about the going rate I think, from subsequent conversations). He also told me that I couldn’t get to Gorazde on that road as the road was very bad due to mines during the war. Great! I had to go back to Sarajevo and find the route I’d originally wanted to take, it was now 2 hours later and I was 15 Euros the poorer.

The road to Foca that I finally got onto wasn’t actually too bad. Things start to deteriorate noticeably though on the Serbian side. Less development and a lot fewer EU funding signs. There are a load of tunnels, some of which are very long and none of which has any lighting. Quite disconcerting when you’re not used to it. One of the people I’d earlier given a lift to had warned me that the road to the border crossing with Montenegro was very poor. On the map it looked pretty straight, so I was more than a little concerned when the road abruptly turned into a dirt track (I have the photos to prove it) and started winding its way up and down the hills. After about an hour of this I was convinced that the local Serbs had decided to get some of their own back for the NATO bombings and were sending me on a wild goose chase, but I managed to get confirmation from another motorist that this was indeed the right road and yes it was very bad wasn’t it. I had visions of breaking an axle or something in the middle of  nowhere (well in the middle of what could actually be quite hostile country) and was very relieved to finally see the border crossing.

Over on the Montenegrin side the road improved considerably and I was able to make good progress. For the first hour or so I was following a river which was pretty soothing after the stress of the route before. The place is if anything even more sparsely populated than Bosnia had been. I drove for about 3 hours and probably only passed through about a half dozen villages. It is aptly named indeed! As the mountains got higher the weather, which had not been good anyway, started to deteriorate. It got foggy and then it started to chuck it down again. It must have rained solid for about 3 hours. I thought Britain was bad but I don’t think we get quite as much rain in such a short period of time – it’s more the incessant drizzle that gets to me. This, however, lasted as long as our drizzle does but was torrential. The roads were awash and by now I’d slowed right down – the water was pouring down the roads and making driving quite perilous.

Eventually I came down out of the hills onto the coast and the rain held off a bit. I stopped at a place called Sveti Stefan, made famous in the 60s and 70s by the likes of Sophia Loren. It is very similar to Mont St Michel – a small island off the mainland linked by a causeway. I thought about stopping the night but decided to press on a bit further. I should have stopped. Instead I got hauled over by the Montenegrin police, this time for having my fog lights still on. I mean how unfair is that! They wanted 23 Euros – but I suggested 10 and they accepted it! I name that fine, Des! In a perverse way I quite like the idea of haggling over fines – makes it seem a bit like being in a Bazaar in the Middle East. As is my wont I overdid it again and carried on for too long, ending up in a small place in the back of beyond, tired and desperate for a bed and some hot food. There weren’t any signs for rooms but I spoke to someone on the street and they called over a neighbour who had a room available. One of the best things about being in a small un-touristy place, from my perspective, is that I get to use the language more. The couple that I stayed with were actually pretty friendly and were amazed that anyone would choose to learn Serbian (important point to note when travelling around the region). They sent me off down the road to Ivan’s bar for dinner.

I have to admit I had major misgivings when I walked in. The place smelt heavily of fish (ok it was a fish restaurant but even so), Serbian folk music was blaring out from the tape player and there were 3 drunks lounging over a table in the corner. The owner had breadcrumbs around his mouth like I’d just disturbed him in the middle of his meal. But the drunks paid up and moved off, the owner turned the  music off, wiped off the breadcrumbs and came and sat down and chatted. I think he said the drunks were some kind of team (the national speed-rabbit-gutting one from the look of them), and that they weren’t locals. He then asked me about Arsenal – funny that, it always used to be Manchester United – Bobbee Charloton… and we chatted (ok, he yabbered away and I nodded) about football, the one subject that any 2 blokes in the world seem to have in common. The fish dinner arrived and it was edible, if not particularly hot and then I bade him goodnight and wandered back to my room.

The morning broke and the weather was overcast again, so after a run round the bay I set off again around the Bay of Kotor. I’m not sure if I was on a side road or the main one – it was a single carriageway most of the way and was right on the side of the bay – you could literally spit into the water (and I’m sure some of the locals do). On the landside were a lot of the old stone houses which I’ve been looking for ever since I got here. They look just like Italian farmhouses, 2 or 3 storeys high with gabled rooves and green painted shutters. The area used to belong to Dubrovnik and felt much more Dalmatian than anything else. The churches were Catholic rather than Orthodox and each village seemed to have at least one. There are several very well-preserved towns and villages on the bay, particularly Kotor itself, with its fortified old town and harbour, and Perast with 2 inhabited islands just off-shore, at least one of which has a monastery on it. Monasteries seem to have been big business in Montenegro at some point judging by the number of them. Unfortunately though the Communist authorities had more practical ideas and there are also a lot of (now defunct) ship-building works around the bay, so that they keep coming into your line of sight and rather spoiling the view. This is of course, a very selfish, touristy point of view as the locals need the work, but I am forever amazed at the number of beauty spots that are despoiled by ugly cement works, factories or whatever.

There was just time for one last brush with the Montenegrin forces of law and order. I got stopped again (four times in 3 days, not bad going eh) for speeding (69 in a 60 zone – not exactly over the top) and this time they wanted the full monty, 23 euros. I have to say I was pretty glad to be over the border again when I got back to Croatia and could look forward to cheaper motoring.

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Last modified: 10/17/04