“If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik.” – George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright but, more importantly, co-founder of the London School of Economics
I’ve found my heaven, and it is the Dalmation Coast. You can have Hawaii, California, the Caribbean Islands, whatever, just give me a flat in the Old City of Dubrovnik, Croatia and I’ll be happy.
We left London on April 5, and nearly missed our plane due to wandering aimlessly in the Gatwick Boots. We flew into Dubrovnik Airport, a cute little airport that reminded me of the Palm Springs Airport before it became all high and mighty and gave itself an international designation (Note to the PS Airport authorities: You’re not fooling anyone).
We caught a taxi to our hotel, and the driver was a really nice guy. We asked him if there were a lot of American tourists coming to Dubrovnik, and he said that before the war (pre-1991) there were quite a few Americans visiting the city, but now not so much. After we dropped our bags off at our hotel (perhaps hotel is an incorrect way to describe where we stayed, as it was really more like a room in a house that had been turned into a “hotel”) we headed off to the Old City of Dubrovnik, an area of shops, restaurants, churches, and homes that are enclosed by walls built between the 13th and 16th centuries.
We had some delicious pizza and then wandered around the city for awhile…it was eerily empty, as tourist season hasn’t quite started, but will in a few weeks. We followed a sign that said “Cold drinks with a beautiful view” and ended up on a terrace that was built on the outside of the city walls, directly facing the ocean. The place was closing (it was probably 10pm or so) but we just stood there for awhile, looking around. What was crazy was that it was absolutely pitch black…no lights at all…you couldn’t even tell where the ocean began, which was strange for me as I’m always used to seeing the lights reflecting off beachfront condos, ships out at sea, lights from the pier, etc but here there was nothing.
Day 2 : Three countries in one day!
Dubrovnik, Croatia -> Trebinje, Bosnia-Hercegovina -> Herceg Novi, Montenegro -> Dubrovnik, Croatia
The next day is when the real adventure occurs. Before leaving London, Crystal and I had noticed how close Dubrovnik was to Bosnia-Hercegovina and Montenegro and wouldn’t it just be shame if we didn’t cross the border for a quick run through those countries?
So, that morning we parted ways with Taline, who preferred the comfort and safety of Dubrovnik’s cafes, and headed off to the bus station to find a bus to Trebinje, the nearest town across the Bosnia-Hercegovina border. After waiting for a very long time, we boarded a small bus that was filled with Trebinje locals bringing back fish, fruit, and vegetables they had purchased in the Dubrovnik markets. You can imagine how wonderful the bus smelled. After driving for about 20 minutes, we went through the Croatian checkpoint and headed towards the Bosnia-Hercegovina checkpoint, about 100 meters up the road. The bus driver collected my and Crystal passports (and some other guy, who I think was a Russian) and handed them over to the Bosnian border guard. After a few minutes, the bus driver got on the bus and, pointing at Crystal and I, hurriedly exclaimed “Policaj! Policaj!” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what this phrase means, so we saunter off the bus and head towards the blue and yellow guard shack, where a gruff looking border guard is flipping through our passports.
“You are just going to Trebinje?” he says, in heavily accented English.
“And then you are going back to Croatia?”
“Er…yes.” we replied, even though it wasn’t quite the exact truth. Yes, technically we were going back to Croatia that day, but we were just going the long way, through Montenegro. Details, details, right? He stamped our passports and we got back onto the bus, slightly embarrassed that our presence had caused a delay (from the looks of things, it doesn’t seem like many foreigners, much less two American girls, take the bus to Trebinje very often).
It is on the winding road to Trebinje that the scars of war become more apparent, with the burned out shells of houses and rusting cars lining the road. Trebinje was the city from which the Serbs shelled Dubrovnik, and, in 1993, expelled 5,000 Muslims and destroyed the city’s mosques.
After what seems like an extremely long ride for such a short distance (25km from Dubrovnik to Trebinje) we finally arrived at the bus station in the city center. We weren’t really sure what we were going to find in Trebinje, as it was a rather depressing city, and reminded me a lot of the outlying areas of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Our first task was to find a bus schedule so that we could plan accordingly. We found one, but it was from 2004, and hence not very useful. We approached the old man that was working at the bus station counter and tried to communicate with him, but our inability to speak Serbo-Croatian and his lack of English proved to be a rather large obstacle. He left his ticket booth and went to talk to our Dubrovnik-Trebinje bus driver. As we watched him talk to the bus driver, it was obvious that he was asking the bus driver why in the hell these two American girls were in Trebinje, and what was he supposed to do with us? The bus driver just shook his head, and the old man headed back to his counter, where he shoved a post-it note pad and pen under the glass partition and motioned for us to write down our destinations. Crystal wrote down “What time is the bus leaving for…?” and listed three cities in Montenegro (thanks to Lonely Planet’s language section in the back of the Croatian guide!). We gave the list to the guide, and he sighed and shook his head. He got out a bus schedule and wrote down the cities we could go to, but none of them were even close to where we wanted to go. Apparently, in order to get to cities in Montenegro, we would have had to take a bus to a larger city in Bosnia and grab a connection from there. At the end of the list, though, he wrote down “Hercig Novi – Taxi, 20 Evros.” Ah, so we could take a taxi across the border!
Wonderful. We thanked him and headed off to explore Trebinje (and I’m sure he was quite thankful to finally get rid of us).
I was a bit hungry, and had 10 Bosnian marks burning a hole in my pocket, so we went into a cafe to grab a bite to eat. The first one we went to didn’t serve food, so we went to another a cafe across the street. They didn’t serve food, either…great. This city is filled with cafes and NONE of them have food. I gave up and purchased some chips from a kiosk. We wandered around for about an hour. There was really nothing of interest there…except some badly misspelled graffiti:
Look mom, I’m in Bosnia-Hercegovina!:
We decide to leave Bosnia, and head off to Montenegro. We walk back to the bus station and find a lone taxi driver sitting in his car, waiting for a customer. We don’t have exactly 20 Euros on us, but have mainly dollars and a few Euros. After a few minutes of haggling and attempting to determine the dollar to Bosnian mark exchange rate, we hand him a hodgepodge of dollars and Euros, and ask “Is this OK?” He didn’t speak any English, which made the conversation quite interesting, but he must have understood our hand movements and fistful of cash we thrust at him, as he agreed to drive us to Herceg Novi.
We hopped in the taxi, and off we went to Montenegro on a road barely wide enough for two cars. Our driver was a really nice guy, and offered us gum (thanks), cigarettes (no thanks, I’m from California – we don’t smoke), and reading material (a gossip magazine, which we couldn’t really read, due to it being in Serbo-Croatian). The scenery proved to be more interesting than the love lives of Bosnian heart throbs, though, so I spent most of the time just looking out the window. Oddly enough, the outskirts of Trebinje were littered with hundreds of plastic bags. How in the hell did so many plastic bags just end up in the middle of nowhere? One of life’s mysteries, I suppose. Crystal and I attempted to use some Serbo-Croatian phrases from the Lonely Planet guidebook, but we must have butchered them, because our driver had no idea what we were talking about. There are many Serbo-Croatian words that are similar to Russian (and, in Trebinje all the signs were in Cyrillic) but for the most part we were unable to communicate with the locals except for numbers and directions. We finally learned that that our driver’s name was Mark, which was quite a breakthrough.
We arrived at the Bosnian checkpoint, a godforsaken location in the middle of nowhere. We waited for a few minutes, as usual. None of the guards spoke English, but I think Mark explained to the guards that he was taking these two crazy Americans to Herceg Novi. We were finally waved through, and then drove through the buffer area between the borders and arrived at a recently built modern border crossing station that, according to the sign next to the building, was funded by U.S. taxpayers. Again, we had to wait a few minutes. Border guards love to take their time…especially the ones way up there in the mountains…they have nothing better to do, it seems.
The drive to Herceg Novi was beautiful – snow capped mountains, valleys with small farms and stone houses, and eventually, the ocean. Mark asked, did we need a hotel room? No. An apartment? No. Did we want to go to the city center? Yes. He really must have thought we were nuts – two Americans in Trebinje, and now Herceg Novi, with absolutely no idea what we were doing there. He took us to the city center, pointed in one direction “more” (sea) and then in the other direction, said some word that I’m not entirely sure what it was…maybe a market, or something. We thanked him and headed towards the sea. While walking along the coast, we came across an old fortress that was built in the 14th century. We walked up some steps and stepped onto a grassy plateau that had once been the floor of a room in the fortress, but the walls had somehow tumbled into the ocean, exposing that area to the elements:
And it was a good place for photos:
And this dog kept following us EVERYWHERE:
We wandered around a bit more, but decided that it was getting rather late, so we headed back towards the city to exchange pounds for Montenegrin currency and then catch a taxi to Dubrovnik. We found a bank, but were surprised when the teller handed us Euros. “Is this for here?” Crystal asked the teller. “Yes”, she replied. We were a bit perplexed. Surely Serbia & Montenegro had not entered the EU? Well, we later found out that Montenegro had just taken it upon itself to adopt the Euro as it’s own currency.
We then headed to a nearby cafe to have a milkshake and enjoy the lovely view:
We called Taline (“Hey Taline, yeah we’re in Montenegro right now…we’ll be back to Dubrovnik in an hour.”) Unfortunately, one hour turned into two hours, as Crystal and I were unable to locate a taxi in the city. We walked and walked and walked and found nothing. I finally spotted a major road and we wandered down there, and, after stopping into a gas station and hair salon to ask where the hell all the taxis were, eventually found one in front of a closed hotel. The driver explained to us in Russian (yeah, finally a language we can understand) that he could only take us to the border, and from there we would walk to the Croatian checkpoint and find a taxi over there. We didn’t have much choice, so we headed towards the border. At the border, we got out of the taxi, showed our passports to the Montenegro guards, and started walking the 100 meters towards the Croatian checkpoint.
While walking across no man’s land, I spotted some signs that looked like this:
These signs are there to warn you of landmines in the area. Yeah, landmines. No need to worry, though, as we stuck to the paved road. I wanted to take a picture of the sign, but Crystal said the border guards probably wouldn’t like that, so I left the camera in my bag. I imagine it would have been a good picture, though – the two of us, walking through the middle of nowhere, surrounded by landmines, with the sun setting behind us.
We get to the Croatian checkpoint and there are two guys there, one is a uniformed guard and the other is in a suit with a police badge on his pocket.
“Dobra Dan.” (Good day) they say, with the BIGGEST grins on their faces.
“Dobra Dan.” we reply, and hand our passports to the uniformed guard. He runs into the guard house, and the guy in the suit just stands there staring at us amusedly. We’re pretty sure that two American girls crossing the border by foot is an event that doesn’t occur everyday, so we’re glad we could provide the police with some amusement. The other guard returns with our passports and we start to walk off when the guy in the suit says “Devojke, kak…?” (in Russian it means “Girls, how…?) but his voice trails off and he just shakes his head.
So, we are officially back in Croatia, and wouldn’t you know it, not a taxi in sight! Awesome! We walk for about 15 minutes, and then come across a roadside grill, where a woman comes out and asks if we need a taxi. Perfect, but the price is a bit higher than we expected. Oh well, Dubrovnik is 50km away, we’re hungry, and Taline is waiting for us to come back so we can grab some dinner. We finally arrive safely in Dubrovnik after the FASTEST TAXI RIDE IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. Success, three countries in one day!
Afterward we had some amazing seafood (and, thank God, I did not get sick this time and was able to eat shellfish, therefore confirming I didn’t develop some nasty reaction to those mussels in Belgium) and regaled Taline with our stories of Bosnia and Montenegro.
On our third day in Croatia, we decided to take a ferry to one of the local islands. We really wanted to go to Mljet, which is supposedly the island where Calypso kept Odysseus prisoner for seven years, but unfortunately the ferry wasn’t going to Mljet that day (one of the downsides of going during the off-peak season). Instead, we went to the island of Lopud, population 220:
On the boat ride there, we talked with some of the locals who were heading to the island to prepare a hotel for tourist season. This older gentleman showed us an English phrasebook he had, which included such helpful phrases as “I really enjoy Jack Lemmon’s films.” and “Do you like American architecture? I do not like American architecture.” It was written by a Brit…hilarious.
After the boat docked, we headed to the only cafe that was open, and asked the waiter what kind of mixed drinks they had, expecting him to rattle off a list with mai tais, pina coladas, and what not…
“We have white wine with coke and red wine with fanta.”
“Uhhhh….what? White wine with coke? Do you, uh, have anything else, like a pina colada?”
“OK, give us some of those coke and wine things.”
They turned out to be rather decent. We asked him what else they had.
“We have a drink called Diesel. It is beer and coke.”
I opted for a Diesel. It was actually quite good.
We then wandered around the island for a while. I went to the beach and stuck my feet in the water. It felt so good. I miss the beach so much, and the smell of salt water, palm trees, and my surfboard. It felt good to be out of a city for once…London, Paris, Budapest, and Brussels are wonderful, but every once in awhile you need to get out of the concrete jungle for a few days.
After we hiked around the island for a bit, we headed back down to catch the boat to Dubrovnik. We ate at a pizzeria in the Old City and then went to – get this – an Irish pub. One of the locals had told us that it was where everyone congregates, since the city is pretty much dead after 8pm. Before we went in, I wondered aloud whether they would have Strongbow, and as soon as I stepped in I saw the Strongbow faucet and made up my mind right then and there that I had to move to Dubrovnik.
We ordered a pint and proceeded to take over the music selection by monopolizing the jukebox, which did not have any music post-1994. I opted for “Dancing Queen” by Abba, “Hotel California” by the Eagles, and of course, “Back in the USSR” by the Beatles. (Taline: “I CANNOT believe you just played Back in the USSR in the Former Yugoslavia.”) Two American college students walked in, one of them wearing a “W 2004″ cap, and I was ready to start a fight with the Bush supporter but was placated by a pint of Red Witch.
Afterwards we went back to the hotel and discovered that West Wing is on Croatian TV at 1:30am. Even better, though, is that they are episodes from the current season showing in the US! We don’t even get those in the UK! Yet another reason to move to Croatia…
The day we leave. Quite sad. We have breakfast at a cafe and then walk on top of the city walls to take in the beautiful view:
The roofs of the Old City. Over 68% of the buildings were struck by Serb artillery shells in 1991-92.
To give you an idea, here is Dubrovnik in 1991:
I wanted to stay there for a few more days, but sadly, we had to leave Dubrovnik, and headed off to the airport to catch our plane back to London. The entire plan groaned when the captain announced that the temperature was a balmy 6 degrees Celsius (42F) with a chance of snow. Ridiculous. I had to change out of my flip flops and back into my sneakers as soon as I collected my bag at Gatwick.
Anyways, the rest of my photos are here. If you ever have the chance to visit Dubrovnik, I highly suggest going…you won’t regret it.