In the summer of 2018, just like the rest of the world flocking to Dubrovnik, the key location of the award-winning fantasy saga The Game of Thrones, my partner and I too added to the tourism boost.
The old town of Dubrovnik lives up to its reputation. A round-the-wall walk overlooking the turquiose sea, charming cafes sunning on the sidewalks, a medieval shopping street (Stradun) glazed everyday under a million feet, conjured a swelling desire to visit the old town every single day of our trip. Even if that meant for a while.
People clustered the old town like bees to a beehive with cameras in hand. The sound of ‘click click click’ wafted through every corner and I thought the place had cast a spell over the camera-toting tourists. History has it that during the Balkan wars, Dubrovnik was shut off by the Yugoslavian army. Its residents suffered months of bombardment, surviving without electricity, water, and with little food.
Today, thoughts of warriors and battles fade out once you ride up to Mount Srd in a cable car. High above, the walled city, its floating islands, and tiny red roof tiles look very Lego-like.
My growing hunger to see more of such natural beauty led me to a road trip along the Balkan peninsula. On day three, we left Dubrovnik behind for a scenic drive to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Less than five hours later we were on Bosnian roads, fringed on both sides with rugged mountains.
Our first stopover was at the UNESCO-protected Pocitelj. I saw for the first time an Ottoman-style mosque bounded by minarets on European soil. On climbing a warren of stairways and between Turkish-style stone houses, we walked past a ruined fortress. I walked further up the hill to the uppermost rampart bastion to get a better panaroma. Upon reaching the top, stillness followed an eerie calm. We were the only travellers here that day.
Back on the road, we zoomed past verdant patches that took over the rugged terrain, which looked emerald-hued in the sunshine. I spotted a few randomly scattered traditional Turkish stone houses with large wooden windows and arched doors.
Our second stop was Mostar, a postcard perfect fairytale town by the river. But their story is not very fairy-tale like.
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I peered at houses with frameless windows, whose façade had been punctured by the blows of gunfire. In the old town center, a medieval Ottoman-era bridge had kept the tragic story alive, even in this gorgeous evening. During the civil war in 1993, the bridge Stari Most was shelled by fire tanks over three days, turning a town into rubble.
The gushing river Neretva flowing below forms a beautiful tiny bay. Even in the scorching summer, I saw beach bums happy to find an oasis of rare natural beauty, and it wasn’t trampled over by tourists.
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A few steps up, at the hole-in-the wall cafes, travellers wearing linen enjoyed their strong Bosnian coffee or a chilled beer in the shade of bougainvillea. The Ottoman-era bazaar and artifacts reminded one of Instanbul or Marrakesh, but none of these famous countries have landscapes that fit our childhood world of fables, like Mostar.
As the day wore on I saw the small town hum with visitors who jostled for space to get a glimpse of the riverside town. Today, strolling around the UNESCO-listed city, one would never know there had been a war here in the name of ethnic cleansing. A bloody history, cultural crossroads, the Middle Eastern flavour-heavy Bosnian cuisine, and an untouched landscape make Mostar a part of another Europe you might fall in love with.
We came back after the day’s trip to Dubrovnik. Next on our itinerary was Montenegro. Unaffected by the day’s exertion of walking around in 40 degrees, we sat down and figured out the next day’s route plan.
It usually takes about three hours to reach Montenegro by road, but border crossings during peak season can get you four to five hours. As for which road to take, I recommend driving along the gorgeous seaside highway in a southerly route taking in views of the Adriatic the whole time.
Pushing forward along the scenic road, scrambling on hairpin bends (walled in on one side by the towering craggy mountains of Montenegro) can make one shudder. History says Venetian conquerors saw for the first the dense pine-forested mountains as one chain of black mountains and hence the name Montenegro, monte meaning mountain and negro resembling for the black color.
The ride to the gorgeous Kotor Bay, cutting through narrow mountain strips, overlooking the bay dotting with bay-hugging medieval villages, is a ride of a lifetime. After reaching Kotor Bay, all we did was to take in the views. The historic walled town of Kotor is thriving in coffee culture and Montenegrin food scene. Without much delay we hopped into a boat ride and visited some bay-side villages.
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Perast is a beautiful town which rises from Verige Strait. Located halfway between the Gulf of Risan and Gulf of Kotor, it is backed by dramatic mountains. We ambled through the town that looked more Italian, full of churches and grand palazzi. At one of the bay-facing cafes, we got the taste of Montenegrin dry red wines made from indigenous Vranac grapes, and their famous cheeses and smoked hams.
Encircled in nature’s bounty, I listened to the peculiar tales and history of Montenegro from our guide. The most fascinating of them all is the island, Our Lady of the Rocks, floating on a natural reef. A myth goes around here that two fishermen discovered an image of the Virgin Mary with Christ and took it back home. The next morning, it was gone. That only meant one thing: the Virgin Mary wanted to live here forever, among the rocks. Today, there is an 18th century Catholic church housing the icon of Virgin Mary.The open waters and the strong winds pushed us further to visit the beach town of Budva. Very rarely would you get to lounge on a beach sunbed, backed by fortress walls and citadel views, listening to jazz. All of this went down well with a beachside lunch of salt-crusted seabass, grilled vegetables and a glass of chilled house wine. Sauntering into the alleyways of the Budva town, the quiant boutiques made me stop each time.
The evening began drawing in, and on our way back while driving in low light, it revealed an entirely different world to what we had seen while walking around in the day.
Resting quietly against the window, enshrouded by a range of daunting mountains, I told myself 'I’m coming back here again for a road trip a long way down the peninsula’.
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