Saturday, October 25, 2014

-- Across the Dalmatians (Part 3) --

The 'Eurolines' bus rockets down the narrow road into Croatian territory, crossing over the mountains and rapidly descending to Makarska.

As kilometres are conquered, villages around me swarm with hectic morning trade and open air restaurants, feeding the indulgence of hungry holiday makers.
An almost immediate transfer happens in Split and I only have five minutes to get off the bus, purchase a ticket and board a second bus Zadar bound, which I finally reach after almost 7 hours of solid travelling.

With no plans or a set place to stay, I walk around the outskirts of Zadar, through a neighborhood of one-story colorful houses, small vineyards and old cars, under a scorching heat and clear blue skies.
I find a small hostel with a large open air area where lethargic backpackers lay on improvised couches made of old wooden pallets and rough cushions, taking advantage of the outstanding weather.

Shortly after checking into my air conditioned empty dorm, I desperately change into my swimming trunks and rush through a series of alleyways to the nearest beach.



A pristine outlook is found: the shoreline is covered with small pebbles, hard on the bare feet but conveniently comfortable when laying a towel and relaxing after a day of bus-grueling journeys.
As only three people are spotted floating in the light blue waters, I decide to dare the logic behind European seasons and quickly dip into the Adriatic.
The water is surprisingly warm, with a sharp dip right from the shoreline, creating the illusion of floating in a massive and calm swimming pool. 

Once the autumnal breeze finally blows, I walk towards the Old Town, entering through an impressive Roman gate and let myself to wander through the narrow pedestrianised streets where tourists buy large slices of pizza, gyros and wine served in plastic cups.

Groups of Chinese tourists pile up by Forum, a square which combines old Roman-times ruins with the sights of the impressive St. Anastasia Cathedral, whilst besides them, a group of hippies blow massive soap bubbles for the amusement of small children and curious tourists with chunky cameras.



I purchase a smoked salmon and lettuce sandwich along with a small bottle of wine, which make it for the perfect snack to enjoy one of Zadar's main attractions: relax at the sound of the sea organ, a combination of pipes and wind chambers embedded in concrete steps located by the shoreline, which release mellow sounds from the constant batter of the waves against them.

It is also the perfect location to watch one of Europe's most famous sunsets, an idea shared by several dozens of tourists who seem to rush to this spot of Old Town minutes before the sun finally hides behind Ugljan Island, dramatically closing yet another day in the Balkans and spectacularly reflecting on the solar/led panels of the 'Greeting to the Sun' monument, my cue to return to the hostel for some hearty dinner and an early retreat, in preparation for a busy day.


With the first rays of morning sunshine, I walk the short distance to the main coach station where a group of tourists have assembled in order to take a bus to Plitvice National Park, leaving shortly after 07:00am.
The bus takes the modern motorway linking the coast to Zagreb in a series of tall viaducts, zig-zags and a particularly 4-kilometer long tunnel which, once crossed, marks a 180 degree change in weather patterns from the warmth of the oceanic villages to the cold and misty Plitvicka mountains.

The bus leaves the modern motorway and enters a small local road which cuts through several small villages covered in dense fog and green fields in which skinny goats graze peacefully.
We are welcomed to the National Park area by a local ranger, only minutes before stopping at the main gate and rush to pay my admission at a wooden cabin.

I am wearing shorts and a t-shirt, which does not seem to be a good idea considering the shy 11 degrees Celsius temperature ruling the mountains and the fact that I will be surrounded by water for the whole day.

A detailed map of the National Park is studied. The longest circuit is suggested to be completed in seven hours and without hesitation, it becomes the path to be followed for the day.
Some steps further, turquoise-coloured lagoons and powerful white rapids are seen rushing through a narrow gorge, marking the start a trail which is marked as 'closed' by a white little sign.



I had been suggested to overlook these signs and continue for a better view of the waterfalls , so I rush down an empty pathway which defies the cold and clear waters through suspended wooden platforms.
With the rainy season, some parts of these platforms are flooded and extra care is needed to cross them, despite my shoes getting wet almost instantly.

Plitvice National Park is a combination of a series of lakes arranged in numerous cascades. A total of 16 large lakes are formed in the passage of the water through the narrow valley, which happens to be rich in fluorides, calcium, minerals and bacteria, forming natural dams or travertine walls.

It can be said that the National Park is in constant transformation due to the dynamics of the bacteria and its sedimentary effect on this particular eco-system, declared UNESCO Patrimony of Humanity.



No better plan than to spend the day following trails and avoiding tourists in a 'power walk' rhythm, which helps in mitigating the effects of the cold weather over my naked skin.

The top of the National Park is rapidly reached, when a lonely and badly-signalized trail catches my attention and is immediately followed, providing amazing views of the park from above, away from the waves of tourists which are now crowding the wooden passageways.

I cross one of the largest lakes in a very peaceful and short (free) boat ride in which a Korean family of 15 make improvised conversations in broken English and take pictures with me.



After five and a half hours of solid trekking/power walking, I surrender to a cup of hot tea and a sandwich at the small restaurant located by the main gate , whilst waiting for the return bus and try to shelter from the cold weather of the late afternoon.

The journey back to Zadar is quiet, as most tourists collapse in exhaustion, before crossing the long motorway tunnel,  raising the temperature by 12 degrees Celsius almost instantly and reaching Zadar at night time.

It's an evening of relaxing at the hostel, finalising a college presentation on Central America and enjoying some light dinner, with only a few hours to rest, get ready and leave on the first bus to the airport.

I walk through the dark streets of Zadar to board the busy bus to the airport, which we reach even before the airport staff are working, forcing fellow travellers to sleep on the floor or queue with heavy pieces of luggage, unfriendly faces apart.

Croatia is left behind as the sun rises over the Dalmatians. I immediately fall asleep and wake up when overflying the English Channel and moments before approaching the coast of Dublin, which is sunny and cold.

A little incident at the airport has transformed Terminal 1 into chaos, forcing me to wait longer to clear immigration thus missing my presentation at college.
The office is next, followed by training in the evening.

Over dinner, I finally have a chance to flick through my pictures and think about the time in the Dalmatians: the unique landscapes and relaxation experienced in Croatia and the lessons learned in Bosnia.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

-- Across the Dalmatians (Part 2) --

Misty and dark brown crops surround the narrow road.

The European Union financial aid seems to have drawn a line at the last outpost and I feel like I have suddenly traveled in time to an old-fashioned Europe.
Small pastel-coloured houses line up on both sides of the busy and worn out asphalt road, whilst villagers prepare for their daily routine and drive Soviet Lada cars.

The sun finally shines through the thick morning fog and unveils a landscape of soft round mountains and deep valleys, sprinkled with the presence of small villages and massive warehouses which seem to have conquered the rough Bosnian topography.

Shortly after driving through Medugorje, a sleepy village crowded with Italian tourists visiting the Catholic sanctuary, an stomach-twisting road brings me down to the valley where Mostar sits.
Imagery of the Bosnian War come to mind as we cruise through the street of suburban Mostar and its Soviet-era housing mono blocks on our way to the bus station. Almost every building is covered in bullet marks.


We finally reach what seems to be an improvised bus station located besides a luxurious hotel. No information is given and we are told this is the last stop of the day.

Two Chinese girls who were on the same bus, seem to be completely lost and forces are joined together in order to read improvised maps and finally make our way into the Old Town.
Locals are not very familiar with the English language which makes navigating a bit more difficult, yet incredibly exciting.


I walk around the streets quietly contemplating the run down buildings and thinking about the capability of the locals of adapting to their normal routine after a devastating war.
The marks on the walls are daily reminders of what happened in these lands almost two decades ago: an expensive war, an ethnic cleansing and the suffering of a generation, yet, despite poor English-language skills, Bosnians come across as extremely polite and smiley people.


Old Town is next, the place where things in town really happen. The place has been completely reconstructed and today, it shines with a mix of Ottoman style buildings crowned by tall white minarets and cobble-stoned streets.
Tourists recently arrived from a series of coaches make their way into the narrow streets in waves of people trying to photograph every corner of this picturesque landscape, dominated by the famous Old Bridge (Stari Most), built in the 16th Century, completely destroyed during the Bosnian War and reconstructed in recent years in a white and spotless white granite, a landmark of the Islamic architecture in the Balkans.



The Neretva River defines the landscape of this narrow valley. A bitterly cold emerald and rough stream which feeds the city with fresh water and why not, the amusement of locals who gather around to jump off the bridge, falling for almost twenty meters.
Pause for a delicious gelatto before walking to my hostel, where a friendly receptionist shows me around whilst indulging on some sweet tea, biscuits and Wi-fi.

I make conversation with a fellow traveler from Britain as we agree to see the town, walking through 'Bulevar' which once marked the main front line in the siege of Mostar and visit the modern (and only) shopping centre in the city with its six floors of Western brands and fast-food chains.

A grafitti-covered concrete structure catches our attention and within seconds, becomes a challenge to be conquered, jumping off a derelict wall, wandering around piles of rubble and broken glass to the main staircase and up the seven floors of this bare concrete skeleton and enjoy a truly astonishing  360-degree view of the city, framed by the white granite mountains nearby.



When returning to the hostel , I learn that this building was the main headquarters of the Bosnian Central Bank before the war, now turned into a silent rundown concrete sentinel guarding the surroundings and used as a clandestine drinking spot.

Two girls from Australia join our conversation at the hostel and a trip down the valley is planned. A public bus journey is attempted but a Muslim holiday proves to be stronger than timetables. 
A old-fashioned Mercedes working as a taxi is our next choice, driven by a local who seems to be disturbingly under aged. 
No word of English and laughs aside, we are finally driven through a straight flat road to the mountains surrounding the monastery of Blagaj.



The monastery was built in 1520 under Ottoman rule at the bottom of a steep mountain ridge, just at the spring of the spotless freezing Bunna River and has become a place of retreat for all Muslims around Bosnia.
Around it, restaurants and bridges have been developed. Questionable, tacky but not enough to subtract the beauty and peacefulness of this small spot in the middle of the Bosnian countryside.

No public transport on the return leg. It is time for the four of us to walk down the road whilst trying to hitch hike, minutes before an autumnal downpour threatens to drench our little adventure.

Divided into two duets, a couple stops and gives us a lift in a modern family van. The driver is Bosnian but has lived in Norway for many years and after a season in Canada, fleeing the war two decades ago. 
In a very thick accent, he proudly states both his Mostar and Muslim origins, immediately switching to a hopeful statement of better days for his home country which is almost sacredly visited by him every year.

The constant touring of the day has made me realise I haven't had a meal in almost 24-hours, just in time for dinner at the now quiet Old Town.
You just can't beat a typical plate of cepavcici (a mix of pitta bread, fresh vegetables and grilled meat) and a local beer. All for only around 5 Euros!



Sightseeing is closed with a walk through Park Zrinjevac and the real-sized Bruce Lee statue and a last visit to the Central Bank building at night, climbing the rubble and contemplating the night view from the top and adding a touch of danger and excitement to my short yet complete visit of Mostar.

Exhausted and back in the hostel, I collapse in the red couch whilst watching 'Ace Ventura' in a laptop-improvised cinema.

Only a few hours later, I check out of the small hostel and walk through the dark streets of Mostar.
Lampposts are turned off and the light sunrise gloom shows me the way through the dead and wet streets of the city.
The apartment mono blocks of suburban Mostar rapidly disappear as we climb up the windy road back to the border with Croatia. I fall asleep and wake up minutes before our passports are taken by the immigration officers and are stamped back into the European Union domain.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

-- Across the Dalmatians (Part 1) --

I drive to Dublin Airport facing the crowds of sleepy Dubliners running around under the October light rain, a clear reminder that autumnal weather has now invaded our daylight-deprived days.

A timid sunshine fills up the big departure halls, moments before a forecasted downpour hits our airplane shortly after finished boarding.
I contemplate the rough weather through my airplane window as we taxi away to the main runway and leave it behind.
The bliss of strong sunshine as we cross the cloud layer is then appreciated , along with Ryanair's policy of morning quiet flights, so the once annoying announcements and Persian-market like sales have been clamped for the time being.

We are soon greeted by the Tyrolean Alps and the coast of Trieste, minutes before starting our descent over a landscape splattered with small islands and a navy blue sea.
An empty flat field is next. Ryanair has now landed in Zadar, a popular touristic destination in the Croatian coast and my gateway to the Dalmatian region.

The heat strikes me as soon as I step out of the airplane and walk through a sunny tarmac to the small glass airport terminal.
A (thankfully) air conditioned bus awaits and takes us through a route crossing a military field with lined up Soviet-era tanks, sheltered under tall olive trees and continuing through a modern motorway into the industrial part of Zadar.


The coach station, a mono block which looks like it has seen better days has no signs in English whatsoever and tourists run around lost in search of some basic bus timetables. I manage to buy a ticket for the next bus to Split, which involves a route through small touristic villages where the word 'Apartmani' seems to be overused.
I soon realise that Croatia has seen a boom in EU holiday makers in the recent years and family homes are turned into small pensions in the summer. It is low season now, so these houses are empty, creating an illusion of ghost villages splattered around the rocky coast.

Three hours later, I finally make it into Split, which is known as 'party central' in the Croatian coast. The coach station is located just beside the busy port, where cruise liners share the space with ferries, leisure boats and groups of tourists following their guide through the crowded pathways.


A few streets away is the Old Town, which I rapidly approach to see minutes before the sun sets.
The historic centre of Split is built around the remains of a Roman palace, which adds an extra touch of history to my walk, whilst walking through Chinese tourists groups, ruining their iPad selfies.




I am somehow confused about the whereabouts of my hostel. I can only see residential buildings at the address I am standing. A small doorstep sign finally tells me I am in the right place, understanding that hostels in Croatia follow the same logic: the building is not solely used for the hostel, but instead a floor has been sublet in a residential building and has been turned into budget accommodation.

A friendly local girl greets me and offers me a shot of Croatian 'rakija' whilst checking me into the two-dorm hostel and shows me around. I meet my fellow dorm mates from Canada and Norway and we decide to go out for a nice meal, enjoying the pleasant and temperate October mediterranean weather through the street of Split, moments before the sun finally sets across the Adriatic and a light breeze blows through the busy main promenade.



110 Croatian Kunas get me a very enjoyable dinner consisting on two pieces of grilled sea bass, some fresh vegetables and a slightly sweet Croatian wine, conveniently enjoyed al fresco overlooking the evening cruise and ferry departures under clear skies.


Drained and exhausted after a day of travelling and some quick sightseeing, I decide to retire to my little hostel, falling asleep almost immediately, enjoying the comfortable bed for only a few hours.

I get ready in almost complete darkness, walking around the now deserted streets of Old Town to the coach station, enduring the chilly morning winds and whilst around me, restaurant workers clean, prepare and set the tables for yet another day of serving hungry tourists.



I leave Split in the early morning bus service to the North, a run down and small bus.
We follow the coast road through Makarska, the starting point for a steep and dramatic ascent, diverting from the coast through a windy road, almost hanging off the solid granite walls of the Dalmatian mountains in an attempt of defying gravity and getting across the high altitude hills.
We then enter a deep and fertile valley covered in crops and dense fog until we stop at a small village.

Police staff come into the bus and request our passports which are taken swiftly into a little booth. I see them scanning them, going through the pages and stamping them aggressively.
The driver takes them back and without saying a word drives a few minutes to a white container/office where he enters again with our identity documents.

When abroad, there is something very unsettling about having your documents taken away from you, so full attention to what's going on around me is paid, only to have the driver handing our passports back to us a few minute later.

New and fresh stamp on it: I have now entered Bosnia and Herzegovina.