The D&O Diary’s European itinerary continued with a last stop over the Memorial Day weekend in Dubrovnik, Croatia’s famous Adriatic port city. We added a fascinating day trip to Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. People have been telling me basically my whole life that I needed to visit Dubrovnik. Turns out, they were right. Despite the crowds from the cruise ships in the city’s narrow streets, Dubrovnik is my new favorite place. It also may the most photogenic city in the world.
Dubrovnik is located on the Adriatic Sea, on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, only a few miles north of the border with Montenegro. Dubrovnik was an Adriatic Sea power and its territory was an independent country for many centuries. To maintain itself and to defend against hostile powers, Dubrovnik built its seaport as a walled fortress. To the city’s northwest, on a small peninsula, a separate fortress tower overlooks the walled city. Within the walls, the streets are narrow. Just offshore from Dubrovnik is the wooded island of Lokram.
On Saturday morning, we got up early, before the city was clogged with congestion from the cruise ship crowds, and we walked the city’s walls. The wall and the walkway along its top change elevation along with the underlying typography. The section of the wall furthest from the sea is quite a bit higher and affords great views across the city to the sea, as reflected at the top of the post and below.
From the seaward side of the city walls, there are great views of Lokrum Island and of the Adriatic beyond.
After circumnavigating the city walls, we took the cable car to the top of Mount Srđ. Viewing the city from the top of the mountain suggests how vulnerable Dubrovnik was during the Croatian War of Independence. After Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army invaded, primarily in support of Serbian separatists in the Croatian areas adjacent to Serbia. Most of the war was fought in the northern parts of the country, but in October 1991, the Yugoslav Army attacked Dubrovnik. For six months, the attackers shelled the city, damaging or destroying as much as 60 percent of the buildings. The Yugoslav forces captured much of the surrounding area but Dubrovnik’s defenders held out and the fighting soon moved elsewhere. After the war ended in 1995, the damage to the city was quickly repaired, though the extent of the damage still can be seen in the city’s rooftops, where the newer roof tiles installed after the war can easily be distinguished from the older tiles. There are still craters from mortar shells on some of the sidewalks as well.
The view from the peak is extraordinary — three different countries can be seen from the top: Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia itself. The mountains just five miles away for many years formed the border between the Christian coastal areas and the Ottoman Empire.
After returning to the city from the top of the mountain, we took a passenger ferry to Lokrum, the wooded island just offshore. The ferry crossing takes less than 15 minutes. The island is now entirely parkland, though there are a number of structures from earlier times on the island. Rocky hiking paths wind through the island’s woods. We followed the path around the island, along the shoreline. It took about two hours to circle the island. From viewpoints along the way, we could see the mainland’s features, including Dubrovnik, as well as other islands and the beautiful Adriatic Sea itself.
It was a hot day, and after our two hour hike, the water looked mighty inviting. Fortunately, we had anticipated this by wearing our swim suits for the hike. On the side of the island furthest from Dubrovnik, there was a long rocky shingle where there were many swimmers and sunbathers. We chose a spot out of the way to stash our stuff, and then we went swimming in the Adriatic, lowering ourselves into the water using one of the metal ladders along the rocks. After the walking along the island’s rocky paths in the heat, the cool water felt great – though it is quite salty. (Can I just say that the phrase “then we went swimming the Adriatic” might be my favorite of anything I have ever typed?)
We caught a ferry back to the island and after cleaning up, we went down to Dubrovnik’s Old Port area, where we watched the sky and the sea as the sun set. As the moon came up over the sea, we were pretty sure that we had just enjoyed the best touristing day ever.
On Sunday, we were up early to meet a guide for a tour of Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. We had been warned to bring our passports, which was a good thing because we crossed the border between Croatia and Bosnia three times during the outbound trip and then again on the way back. Mostar is about three hours from Dubrovnik. The early part of the journey runs along the Adriatic coast and was absolutely beautiful. Then after about an hour and a half, we headed east toward Bosnia’s rugged interior. We made a brief stop at the fortress city of Počitelj, which sits on a rise above the Neretva River. There we saw the first sign of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s distinctive history and cultural heritage. Rising above the village was the minaret of the village’s mosque.
Bosnia-Herzegovina was occupied by the Ottoman Turks from the 15th century until it became an autonomous area within the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878. After World War I, Bosnia became part of what eventually was called Yugoslavia. Though the Ottoman occupation ended long ago, many cultural vestiges remain; many in the local population (known as Bosniaks) who follow Islam. The population also includes Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, providing an unusual mix of religious and ethnic diversity. The various groups coexisted until Yugoslavia began to fall apart. When Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence in 1992, a brutally violent and destructive war broke out. There were over 100,000 casualties in the war. The international community ultimately brokered a peace deal in 1995; the peace involved an uneasy compromise that has at least so far held together. Driving through the countryside, remnants of the war may still be seen – vivid reminders of the terrible war and of the fact that the country is still recovering.
Mostar is the largest city in the Herzgovina region. It was also the scene of some of the most brutal fighting in the war. Today, Mostar is a busy town. In many ways, the city gives the impression that it is largely recovered. However, there are still damaged buildings standing in the central district, and many of other buildings are pocked with bullet holes. The city is still divided into a Catholic Croat side and a Muslim Bosniak side. The eastern, Muslim side reflects the city’s Ottoman heritage, including a number of minarets along the river, as well as a shopping street that has the feel of a Turkish bazaar.
Though it has now been 23 years since the war in Mostar ended, visible signs of the war remain.
In a circumstance that can only be called ironic, the city’s most important landmark (and its biggest tourist attraction) is the Stari Most (the Old Bridge), which connects the city’s Muslim eastern side to its Catholic Croat west side. The bridge was completed in 1568, under the Ottomans. It is considered by many to be the preeminent piece of Balkan Islamic architecture. The bridge’s freestanding arch remained strong enough to support the weight of Nazi tanks during World War II. In October 1993, Croat forces on the heights above Mostar began shelling the city. On November 9, 1993, the bridge, which had joined the river’s two sides for over 420 years, collapsed. The Muslim Bosniaks were trapped on the east side in what has been called the Siege of Mostar. Soon after the war had ended, city authorities (with help from the international community) began planning to rebuild the bridge. The restored bridge re-opened in 2004.
Walking across the bridge today is seriously thought-provoking. Is there anything more symbolic of peace than a bridge? We spent a long time viewing the bridge from different vantage points. For example, we climbed the minaret of the Koski Mehmet-Pasha Mosque, the tallest minaret in Mostar. While we were walking through the Muslim quarter on the river’s east side, we heard the call to worship from the many minarets around town. The beautiful, naturally green-tinted Neretva River flows under the bridge and through the town. It is a peaceful scene today; the terrible events that caused so much death and destruction seem almost unthinkable – and yet it was just a short time ago.
We were mostly quiet during the long drive back to Dubrovnik. The next day, we headed home. During our Eastern European trip, we visited five countries that speak five different languages, with four different currencies. We saw rivers, mountains, and the sea. The places we visited all have long histories covering many centuries. But for all of their long histories, the developments and events of the 20th century are the most momentous and the most tragic. It was great to see that these various places that suffered so much during the 20th century are now enjoying the benefits of peace. However, the new prosperity that many of these places now enjoy is precarious. History has not stopped. The benefits of freedom and the fruits of peace can never be taken for granted.