Alright folks, let's get this show back on the road. Literally.
I told you about how over the course of my seminar in Dubrovnik, we squeezed in a few field trips – like when we visited Marco Polo's alleged birthplace in Korcula Island. Well. To that, I say: child's play!
A week prior, our group embarked on the granddaddy of all field trips: a roadtrip from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo and back, with a few pitstops throughout the beautiful country of Bosnia & Herzegovina in between.
We boarded the bus bright and early one July morning. To refresh, this is a bus of a dozen tired college kids, two professors, their families, and one chatty bus driver. As he mumbled in undecipherable Croatian, the rest of us dozed off under full-blast air-conditioning, stirring awake only at the border checkpoint of Bosnia to hand over a neat stack of passports to be stamped. Then (well, plus a rest stop where we pleaded for gelato), we arrived at our first detour:
A Bosnian village situated in a natural amphitheater alongside the river Neretva (thank you, Wikipedia). A place of storied medieval history and interestingly, in more modern times, the home of an artists' colony.
For our part, we jumped off the bus one by one onto the dusty ground. Immediately, a few Bosnian women approached us, bearing large grins and baskets full of white paper cones, each topped up with figs and apricots and bursting with strawberries. 10 marks each! Scrambling to choose a cone, we devoured the ripe fruit, and went on our merry way.
To explore Počitelj, one follows a curved path. You climb steadily uphill, pausing every now and then to sort through beaded earrings and pens made of bullets and Tito magnets being sold at kiosks on either side of the pathway. A few of us lagged behind, deterred by the slipperiness of the dust on the ground and by the pretty baubles. Before too long, our professor Pavle came to herd us back to the bus.
A special treat, Pavle and Jovana promised us, a twinkle in their eyes.
Endless rounds of Head's Up. Lessons from our adorable 8-year-old language teacher in memorizing Croatian tongue twisters:
Na vrh brda vrba mrda, she firmly made us repeat. Over and over again. And again.
I guess diamonds are formed under pressure, Cassandra commented wryly.
Our bus driver whizzed through windy roads, veering ever so close to the dark cyan river, towering cliff-faces, and subtly beautiful arched bridges. Before too long, we stood in front of a restaurant hidden in the valley of the Neretva river.
We were at Zdrava Voda, famous in all the land for its lamb, which they cook on a spit over an open fire. Upon settling in at the no-frills restaurant (it was muggy, there were flies, but I'd go back in an instant), we were quickly served buttery lamb flatbreads:
Excuse my salivating.
Next, we piled on the veggies: cabbage salad, ever so popular.
The main course: a huge platter of salty, juicy, crispy cuts of lamb. Served with potatoes, of course!
So satisfying. We munched away with fervor, occasionally picking at each others' cuts of lamb for variety, until at long last we had to unbutton our shorts and call for sweet mercy.
But, none was given.
Jovana asked for small pots of Bosnian coffee to cleanse our palate, and showed us exactly how to drink it. You angle your spoon at the lip of the pot to keep the grounds from sneaking into your cup and let the bitter coffee fill slowly.
A beverage meant to be savored.
We sipped the coffee carefully (I do have to confess that a fair bit of grounds still found their way into my cup... I regretfully have not perfected my pouring of Bosnian coffee just yet) and watched with wide eyes as the waitress set one last plate in front of each of us:
Pavle pointed to the dessert and said with a wicked grin,
"Ask Jovana what it's called!"
"Tofahije," she said helpfully. The giggles started. She repeated herself, "tofahije!" and the laughter got louder. You see, friends, with proper pronunciation, this lovely concoction of poached apples in sugar water, stuffed with walnuts and whipped cream, sounds like:
To– foq – ya.
"Jovana!!" We scolded. "There are kids at the table!"
In an attempt to walk off a bit of our gluttonous meal, we headed over to this site:
The scene of the Battle of Neretva. Long story short, in World War II, the Yugoslav army outsmarted the Germans in an act of cunning defense and destroyed this bridge over the Neretva. Years later, in an effort to depict an accurate portrayal for the production of a movie by the same name, the bridge was re-built and then re-destroyed. Twice.
Give that bridge an Oscar!
(Fun fact: it actually was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to War and Peace.)
After a lecture at a university in Mostar, we set off on a short tour of the city. Firstly, Mostar is notorious for its unforgiving heat, and we were oh so fortunate to experience the peak of it. Whereas Dubrovnik was a slick, suffocating sort of heat, Mostar's was straight up dry and hellish, with a sun that burned the top of our heads.
Something you should know about Bosnia & Herzegovina. Because it has such a diverse ethnic mix, it was also the area that was sadly the hardest hit during the Yugoslavia Civil War in the 90's. I would love nothing more than to be able to say that the past is in the past and that the daily life in BiH reflects that statement, but that... is painting too rosy a picture.
I'd like to make it clear. BiH is incredibly safe. We never felt any threat to our safety, never felt unease whatsoever. But it is a country still recovering from a war that happened all too recently, a merciless and inhuman and gut-punchingly heartwrenching war in a region that previously had nary a dividing line. It was a fight among brothers, typically the most painful of all.
Given that, Bosnia has done its best to move forward.
In many ways, they've done an incredible job.
Tourism is thriving, the people are spectacularly warm and friendly. Bosnians are extremely tolerant of different religions and ethnic groups. They go about their daily lives just as any person anywhere in the world would.
With an extra dose of bridge-jumping for good measure:
Local boys wait by the famous bridge and collect showbiz money from spectators before stripping down to their Speedos and diving feet-first into the shallow depths of the river.
Thrilling, that's for sure.
Moments after, the Muslim call for prayer blanketed the town from the mosque down yonder and we were captured in a blanket of stillness and reverence.
As peaceful as the bridge-jumping was thrilling.
However, in many ways, Bosnia hasn't been so successful in moving on, but who can fault them for that?
There is tension and strict divides between ethnic groups in some cities. In Mostar, for example, there is a literal street that splits the city: Bosniak Muslims stay on one side, Croats on the other. Although this improves little by little with time, it is a harrowing reminder of the past.
There are other in-your-face signs of the war that's barely escaped the clutches of the city. Grenade damage and bullet holes peppering the facades of buildings, families missing fathers and uncles, and the heavy presence of war tourism, where Bosnians take actual bullets aimed at them, very real artifacts from a very real war, and sell them for profit.
An uncomfortable concept, certainly, but almost admirable in a way. Why not take control of your trials and tribulations, and turn them into something far more advantageous? Why not face the remnants of a hard past every day and say, you won't be the fall of me. I'll make you lift me.
Let's lighten up for a minute.
I'm about to show you something that changed my life.
Yes, this was a mere hour from when we had last feasted on lamb.
Yes, no one could stomach another bite of food.
But when your professors command you to sit and eat like a proper Bosnian, you sit and eat.
We holed up inside a tiny, steamy restaurant, our thighs sticking on wood benches, the lone old-fashioned fan working in overtime to ventilate the room. Then the cook slid plate after plate of piping hot cevapi at us and all else was forgotten. Pockets of a pita-focaccia hybrid vessel stuffed with flavorful grilled breakfast sausages and a smattering of onions.
The world has never felt so right.
[Sarajevo Interlude, which I'll you about on another day!]
Buna was our only stop on the way back to Dubrovnik.
Disclaimer: I did no justice capturing this stunning place. I've been seeing Buna all over Instagram and travel blogs since my return and well, I can only say that I was a hardcore slacker because check out how much prettier Buna actually looks.
Vrelo Bune is the source of the Buna river, and is to be noted for:
One, Blagai Tekke, a little Turkish Dervish house tucked away on the side of the mountain. Of course, we couldn't pass up the chance to peek inside:
Two, the freeeeeeezing water of the river.
It is thought to have healing powers... if you can brave the chill.
I've made it clear how much heat we had to endure on this trip, and this little town was no different. Stifling, dry air that made it difficult to breathe, sweat perpetually coating my skin.
One toe in the Buna River, and I was in tears from the pain. At one point, I sort of awkwardly plopped my entire lower half into the river, and my legs went numb in a matter of seconds. It was the sort of cold that sends needles shooting through your flesh, the kind of cold that might've bothered even Elsa.
Three, the trout!
There are a number of restaurants dotting the riverside and each serves up whole trout caught from the Buna. Fried until crispy, the flaky bites of fish was ridden with pesky bits of bone, drizzled with a splash of lemon.
(The river is so cold that restaurants drop buckets full of soft drinks into it for natural refrigeration!)
We enjoyed the fish and the views and the conversation until we were surrounded by a shroud of bees. At that point, we called it quits and peaced. the. eff. out.
Our crew showed up at our dinky Dubrovnik hotel by nightfall, traded in our passports for room keys, and then fell sound asleep after a long and rewarding trip.
Next time, I shall tell you about Sarajevo!
Next time, I shall tell you about Sarajevo!