It may be presumptuous to call a trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia and Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina [sic] a trip to “Yugoslavia”, but the lines were so blurred and the history so entrenched that it felt more monocultural than binational. Sights and verbal accounts in both countries often alluded to the not-so-distant Yugoslav wars, which divided a people who locals say had previously lived in harmony. The specific locales that we visited were also incomparably beautiful, which laid a contrasting patina of elegance on the region’s dark history. With the help of a shifting crew of new and old friends, I came to know a place rich in natural beauty yet still tending to the wounds of a horrific past.
At an airport ATM in Dubrovnik, I shared my frustration over the lack of exchange rate information with another traveler. We happened to be taking the same shuttle into town, so we talked on the way to central Dubrovnik and made plans to meet later. I met Mary and her friend Marina at a crystal-clear beach named “Bellevue” near the old town, where we swam and watched a local climb some treacherous rocks to jump off a twenty meter cliff. The entire beach applauded when he emerged from the blue.
We got some food at a grocery store (Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, is outrageously expensive) and then explored some quiet beaches on the south side of town until evening. Back at my hostel, I met up with Daye, a long-time friend from Drexel who had planned to join me months ago. We caught up and discussed plans for the week.
The next morning, Daye and I met Mary and Marina to walk along the famous wall of the old city. We spent about three hours on the wall, observing the sea and climbing into the windows of the fortification, which protected the civilization from intruders for five centuries. We later went to the Troubador Jazz Cafe, where a six-piece Brazilian jazz band was playing for both customers and passersby, as it was situated outside on a busy old town street.
We woke up early the next day because we had reserved a sea-kayaking tour, only to find that our guides decided to cancel because of strong winds. Remembering that a number of companies were offering kayaking trips in a nearby square, we went to find somebody who would take our money despite the liability risk of us drowning. Sure enough, we were approached immediately and ushered to a small cove to start our kayaking journey. The guide told us of the curse of Lokrum Island, which we kayaked past. Apparently, the Benedictines placed a curse on the island when they were forced out after eight hundred years of residence. Since then, an uncanny number of macabre incidents have occurred on Lokrum, including a long list of suicides and murders.
Perhaps the whole story was a clever marketing appropriation of a series of coincidences, but in any case, we were intrigued enough to go to Lokrum Island. After meeting with our friend Teja, who had decided to join us on a whim during spring break, we took the ferry to Lokrum and spent the late afternoon exploring. We spent a majority of our time with the peacocks and bunnies that inexplicably covered the island, but also checked out the Game of Thrones museum (Dubrovnik is King’s Landing) and some stunning rock formations on the Island’s southern shore.
We said goodbye to Mary and Marina at the end of the day and prepared for our bus to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina the following afternoon. At the bus stop, we found some fellow travelers who had just come from Mostar. We spoke with them about the region as we drove along Croatia’s shimmering coastline and into Bosnia and Herzegovina’s verdant mountain ranges, and took their suggestion for a dinner spot when we arrived. At Šadrvan restaurant, our friendly waiter proudly suggested us local food and wine, which was both tasty and, to our relief, cheap.
As we walked further into the old town after dinner, we heard some horns in the distance. We followed the music until we came upon a packed bar with a brass band playing outside. Unbeknownst to us, Mostar had just days before hosted the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, and the band was there to celebrate. We met the owner of the pub, who happened to be an American from Seattle, and fell into a discussion about the history of the region. He told us that his landlord filmed this famous video of “Stari Most” (literally translating to “old bridge”) being destroyed. We also met a local Bosnian who told us of the economic and social troubles that still plague the area.
The next morning, we scheduled a tour with our hostel intending to see the nearby Kravica falls. The tour began with a breakfast of borek and coffee in a small village where Bosnian royalty resided before the Ottomans conquered. We then drove to a “secret” attraction: a sketchy turn onto a dirt road and through a colossal, kilometers long concrete tunnel. When we reached the other side, our guide explained that the complex was once a hangar used by the Yugoslavian government to house fighter jets.
Our guide used the breathtaking abandoned military facility to deliver an incredible talk on the history of Yugoslavia. Nobody was prepared for the heart-wrenching story of the Bosnian genocide, which was especially depressing considering the region’s once exceptional religious tolerance. Our guide explained that before the wars, young children would choose their religion instead of adopting their parents’, and mixed religion marriages were a source of familial pride. His tone was incredulous; he was exhaustively knowledgeable of the history of his homeland, yet still could not fathom how the progressive culture he grew up in was engulfed by some of the most gruesome religiously-motivated atrocities.
The group fell to silence as he wound down his talk, and it took a half hour of exploring the hangar to regain our enthusiasm. We packed into the tour vans afterward to drive to the main attraction. Well outside the city, a wall of water fell amidst green forestry into a large pond, complete with what our guide called a “jacuzzi” (a place to sit and have the falls massage your back) and some rock climbing formations. The water was freezing. If I had discovered the pond on my own, I would have thought that swimming in it would lead to certain death via hypothermia. However, a number of visitors were swimming in it, so eventually I jumped in. Enjoyable is not quite the word I would use to describe submerging myself in the ice cold pond, but I would have regretted passing the opportunity up.
After the falls, our guide took us to a medieval Ottoman village on the river Netvera (main photo above). We climbed a clock tower to the amazing lookout, and observed a village that was more or less frozen in time. Our guide explained that the houses in the small village have remained in the same families for many centuries, and even if an owner of property in the village dies, one hundred years must pass before the government can seize the property, assuming no family member has stepped up to claim it.
We went back to Sadrvan for dinner after the tour with a group we’d met during the day. We had one more thing to see before we left: the “Sniper Tower”. We had to jump a tall gate to enter the looming concrete remains of a former bank building that was used in the war as a sniper base. Bank documents, film rolls, and broken glass littered the ground while the walls were covered in graffiti. We carefully climbed six floors to reach the roof, where we looked out over Mostar in silence. The gleaming city looked warm and cozy, nestled between its surrounding mountains, but not a building in sight lacked a bullet hole.