Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dawdling in Dubrovnik, Moseying to Mostar

Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, December 1

I am sitting in a wonderful and completely deserted hostel here in Mostar, trying to bring my blog up to date after a few days of eventful riding and thought-provoking scenery and conversations.

I blasted all the way from Kotor to Dubrovnik in a day on Nov. 27th; I didn't think that I would make it, but it was far less hilly than I had been led to believe (as well as about 20 km shorter)--my map is pretty deficient in some important respects. The brilliant sunshine that had made my ride into Kotor so photogenic had disappeared, but even under leaden skies, the rest of the spin around the Bay of Kotor was very pretty, interrupted by a quick visit to some second-century Roman mosaics in Risan. I finally emerged from the sheltered waters and quiet roads and continued on to a lunch stop in Herceg Novi, another pleasant old town projecting into the Adriatic. The hilliest bit of the day was, strangely, the two kilometres between the Montenegrin and Croatian border posts; after that I rode mostly along a flat inland valley full of vineyards. Another steep climb led to a dramatic plummet into the city of Dubrovnik from a clifftop viewpoint. I found my way to a little backpacker guesthouse, checked in and then wandered into the old city to have a nocturnal look around.

Way back in the prehistoric days of 1988, I was told that the three great old cities of eastern Europe were Prague, Krakow and Dubrovnik. I first saw Prague that year, and two years later I found my way to Krakow, but this was my first opportunity to set eyes on the third city of the trinity. It was well worth the wait. Dubrovnik is a spectacular place, with a broad, imposing main street, the Stradun, lined with white limestone Baroque and Gothic buildings that catch the nighttime lighting in precisely the right way. In some ways, the warmth of the stone is captured even better at night than in sunlight. I wandered open-mouthed through the narrow alleyways of the city, peering up the steep, darkened side streets. I found my way out the other side of the old town and ate mussels in a little restaurant beside the harbour.

I liked Dubrovnik so much that I took two days off there to rest my tired legs. The first day was so unremittingly rainy that I barely left the hostel until the evening, sallying forth for another seafood feast when the rain finally stopped. The second day was cloudy but dry, and I spent a happy hour strolling the old city's walls, getting wonderful views both of the dramatic light over the sea and the back yards, nooks and crannies of the medieval town. Dubrovnik was badly damaged by shelling by Montenegrin militias and the Yugoslav army in 1991-92, and although most damage has been repaired, there are still a few derelict ruins that you can spot from the walls. The destruction was decried at the time as pure vandalism, as the old town of Dubrovnik had zero military significance; this sort of pointless destruction was all too common in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Happily, once the fighting was over, the Croatians determinedly rebuilt the city and it still oozes historic charm.

Dubrovnik was a major port on the Adriatic for centuries, first under Venetian control but then as an independent commercial rival to the Venetians. It certainly has an Italian feel to it, perhaps because of the Baroque churches and classic Renaissance architecture along the Stradun. Talking to some Croatians (the entire population of Dubrovnik seems to speak excellent English), I heard tell that Marco Polo, whose trail I followed along the Silk Road, was in fact born on nearby Korcula Island, which was a possession of the Venetian Republic. I looked it up, and in fact the historical evidence is non-existent, but apparently there is a Marco Polo museum on the island. Since it seems pretty dubious, I decided not to take a detour to check it out.

I finally tore myself away from Dubrovnik yesterday and rode up into the limestone hills that line the coast, reaching the Bosnian border only 12 km from town. I spent the day riding through a wild, desolate limestone plateau with a thin scattering of towns and villages, blown by gale-force winds up over the numerous climbs along the route. All day I was in the Republika Srpska, the territory of the Bosnian Serbs, as shown by the Cyrillic alphabet on signs and the Orthodox churches along the road. I spent the evening in the village of Ljubinje, staying in a house that rents out rooms to the very occasional travellers who spend the night there. One of their relatives is a policeman who speaks pretty good English, and I had a long, illuminating conversation with him about the war, the political and economic situation of the country (fairly dire) and the future (dim). He and his family were gracious, well-spoken counter-examples to the Western media image of
Bosnian Serbs as fire-breathing war-mongering monsters, and I was glad both for the conversation and for the roof on a night of wild gale-force winds and rain.
Today's riding was truly dismal, with the winds continuing, accompanied by non-stop torrential rain, occasional hail and lightning. I was soaked and cold when I got to Mostar, and spent a couple of hours warming up and waiting for the rain to stop before going down to investigate the old town. Mostar lived up to my expectations, and even exceeded them. Mostar was almost completely destroyed, first by the Yugoslav army, then by fratricidal fighting between the supposedly allied Bosnian Croats and Muslims in 1993. Its iconic Ottoman stone bridge was deliberately destroyed by Croat shelling, and the old town did not have a single intact roof left when fighting stopped. As in Dubrovnik, there has been extensive reconstruction, and the bridge was re-opened in 2004. Outside the old town, there are still lots of destroyed, bullet-pocked buildings, but the old town once again boasts cobbled streets and overhanging Ottoman houses and graceful Turkish mosques, all painstakingly rebuilt from the ashes of war.

The reconstructed bridge is tremendously picturesque, and I spent a long time wandering around, trying to find the perfect angle for pictures. For years I had a poster on my wall of a painting of Mostar's bridge done by the 19th-century Hungarian painter Csontvary, and I had always wanted to see it for real. It lived up to the painting, particularly when the sun had set and the bridge was bathed in warm, yellow spotlights. It seems a symbol of the co-operation which this war-ravaged nation will require between the political leaders of the three ethnic/religious communities if this country is to prosper in the future.

From here, I will head quickly and fairly directly up the Croatian coast towards Trieste and journey's end in Venice. I hope the weather improves! I can't take too many more days like today.

Peace and Tailwinds

Riding Day No.



From Start of Trip



Final Elevation









Daily Destination


Dubrovnik, Croatia


Ljubinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina



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