Pearls of Herzegovina

Blagaj Tekija Sufi Monastery River Buna Pocitelj

Monday the weather was warm and beautiful so I took a long day tour of Herzegovina – 8 am until 9 pm. There were three of us – me, a German tourist from Frankfurt, and Adnan, our Meet Bosnia Guide.

Ducks River Bruna Pocitel

It’s hard to say which places were favorites because everything was exceptional. The main points included:

  • Konjic
  • Jablanica
  • Mostar
  • Blagaj
  • Počitelj 
  • Kravice Falls
  • Wine Cellar Begić

Dome Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque

Guides from Meet Bosnia are very good. They’re gracious and provide clear and thorough information. Without taking sides or injecting personal beliefs, our guide filled a few gaps in my understanding of Balkan history and politics – a complicated subject!

Konjic Stone Bridge

Konjic – Stone Bridge, Tito’s Bunker

Our first stop was Konjic’s beautiful Ottoman Stone Bridge on the emerald-green Neretva River. Built in 1682, the bridge was destroyed during World War II, eventually reconstructed, and reopened in 2009. It’s known as a “point where Herzegovina joins Bosnia” and is on the list of National Monuments.

Konjic

Konjic and the Neretva River Canyon are surrounded by spectacular Balkan mountains rich in cobalt, minerals, agriculture, and forests. Although we didn’t visit Tito’s Bunker, our guide provided information about it. Josip Broz Tito, president of The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, built a bunker near Konjic that could “withstand a nuclear attack of 20 – 25 kilotons” – not sure exactly what that means.

Tito’s Nuclear Bunker – Hit Booker Mostar

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Tito’s Bunker was “the biggest secret of former Yugoslavia”. Between 1953 and 1979 it was built under Zlatar Mountain and cost $4.6 billion U.S. dollars!!”

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Hajji Alija Mosque Počitelj

It had eight alternative exits, one hundred rooms, and Tito’s luxurious private residence and office. In case of a nuclear attack it “was to be used by 350 people from Yugoslavia’s political and state leadership”. They could live in the bunker for six months without contact from the outside world.

Sunny View Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque Minaret

I’m pretty sure Tito alone is a whole chapter of Balkan history. Although he looks mean and evil in photos, many of his countrymen consider him “one of the most benevolent dictators in modern history”. He led the Yugoslav partisan forces to liberation from Nazi occupation without help from the Soviet Red Army.

View from Tower Kula Fort Počitelj

After the war, Tito was the unifying figure in his country and led Yugoslavia from 1943 until his death in 1980. He maintained a “highly favorable reputation abroad in both Eastern and Western Cold War blocs”.

Church of St. John the Baptist Konjic

Minaret Steps Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque

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“Josip Broz Tito, president of The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, received 98 foreign decorations, including the Légion d’Honneur and Order of Bath.”

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Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque Mostar

Jablanica

“Tucked into the peaks of the Cvrsnica and Prenj Mountains” along the Neretva River, Jablanica has a mild climate between Mediterranean and Continental. It’s a small town known for the destruction of a railway bridge during the Battle of Neretva.

Jablanica Battle Spot Near Neretva Bridge

During WW II, Jablanica was the site of the battle “where Yugoslav Partisans won an unlikely battle against the Axis forces”. Today, the remains of the destroyed bridge are a “symbol of wartime difficulties and sacrifice”.

Battlefield Jablanica

Jablanica Railway Bridge Neretva River Destroyed by Yugoslav Partisans WW II – Wikivoyage

Mostar

This was my second trip to Mostar. The first visit from Dubrovnik wasn’t ideal for many reasons including heavy rain. This time the city at the foot of Velez Mountain was a delightful feast for my eyes! I wrote about Mostar in an earlier blog post but this time really saw the beautiful historic city!

Kravice Waterfalls – earthpron.org

The Old Bridge is Mostar’s most famous attraction. Built by a Turkish builder in 1566  it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We also enjoyed beautiful Kriva Ćuprija, the oldest arch bridge in Mostar.

Mostar’s Old Bazaar Kujundžiluk

Best of all I climbed the minaret of Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, the second largest mosque in Mostar. I’ve always wanted to climb a minaret! The inside was interesting but after climbing the narrow tower, the spectacular panoramas on top were indescribable! Sadly the sun wasn’t at a good angle for photos.

Kriva Ćuprija Arch Bridge Mostar

Kujundžiluk, Mostar’s Old Bazaar looks better in sunshine. Vendors, crafts, cafés, and tourists lined the buzzing cobbled streets.

Mostar Bridge

Blagaj

Blagaj, a “haven of peace and natural harmony”, was a special part of the tour. It’s the location of Tekija – the Sufi Dervish Monastery. Built around 1520, the monastery is an important monument of the early Ottoman period in Bosnia-Herzegovina. On special occasions Dervishes perform rituals there, including Sufi Dhikr (praise to God).

Blagaj Tekija Dervish Monastery

The Blagaj Tekija is on River Buna, cooled by the water and surrounded by spectacular mountain views. It’s easy to understand why visitors enjoy the fresh water, warm sun, and blue skies. It’s truly a peaceful place. You can tour the inside of the monastery.

View Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque

We had a leisurely lunch at Restaurant Vrelo on the river bank across from the monastery. Since it’s off-season it wasn’t crowded.

Restoran Vrelo Blagaj

Steps Počitelj Tower

Počitelj

After lunch we headed to Počitelj, a stepped Ottoman-Era Fortress village. It’s a magic place. We climbed the stone steps past medieval houses and pomegranate bushes to Počitelj Fortress. At the top, we scrambled up the narrow tower to unbelievable views across the village and River Neretva!

Neretva River – commons wikimedia.org

The view is “dominated by Hajji Alija’s Mosque, the mekteb (primary school), imaret (kitchen), medresa (high school), hamam (public baths), han (public inn), and sahat-kula (clock-tower)”. The most “dominant residential structure in the village is Gavrakanpetanović House, which has hosted thousands of artists and cultural actors from all over the world at the International Art Colony”. Sadly, many of the artists moved away.

Pocitelj Citadel

Kravice Falls, Trebižat River

Next stop was Kravice Falls on the Trebižat River. Hidden in the Balkans southwest of Mostar, Kravice Falls forms a “natural amphitheater”. For its “amazing beauty and untouched nature, it’s protected by Bosnia-Herzegovina as a natural rarity”. In the summer the waterfalls are a popular swimming hole and picnic area. They’re at their best in early spring.

Wine Cellar Begić

Our last stop was not part of the itinerary but the day had gone so well our guide asked if we’d like to stop by a small family winery – Wine Cellar Begić in Ljubuški Herzegovina on the way back to Sarajevo. We agreed and arrived shortly before sunset.

Winery Spread

It’s a lovely isolated vineyard started by a man who made wine for his family and friends and slowly got involved in the commercial market. Some of their wines are made from plavac mali grapes indigenous to the area. As the winery grows, they plan to expand and add a larger wine cellar and small restaurant. The Plavac Mali is fantastic!

Wine Cellar Begić in Ljubuški Herzegovina – wine-cellar-begic.com

We went on a tour of the grounds and wine cellar and listened to interesting wine making notes. At that point my brain was already saturated with details of the long day, so I don’t remember much. It was a pleasant experience watching the sunset, enjoying a full moon rising, and sampling local figs, cheese, and other products made and grown on the winery. A true Bosnian experience, it was time well spent with gracious hosts. We stayed longer than planned and didn’t begin our drive back to Sarajevo until late.

Winery Presentation

Dubrovnik Reflections

Stradun Old Town in Winter – Culture Trip

It’s an understatement that Dubrovnik is a vast change from Berlin! With the 90/180 visa rule, I had to exit EU Schengen countries and there weren’t many options. Croatia was the right choice.

Dubrovački Zimski Festival 2019 – tzdubrovnik.hr

Dubrovnik in Winter

Some say visiting Dubrovnik in winter is crazy, but I love the time here, even though it can get windy and cold. Locals clearly prefer warm Mediterranean weather and grumble when it gets below 50. Winter temperatures are steady in the 40s – 50s with chilly nights in the 30s. Most days are crisp and clear emphasizing a backdrop of sea and mountains! I met a tourist from Chicago who said Dubrovnik’s winter weather seemed almost like spring. It’s ideal for hiking and winter festivals are fun. 

Festival of St. Blaise Dubrovnik – Total Croatia News

Long-Term Travel

Long-term travel is a much different experience than short-term group or family trips. The goal is staying a while and being low-key, forgetting yourself, getting comfortable mingling, and learning to understand a country’s culture, people, and day-to-day life. I no longer try to explain the value of this to those who don’t understand and are even critical. However, as a solo traveler you must be self-reliant and cautious. I’ve made and survived many mistakes. Imperfection and the unknown are part of the adventure.

Stradun Old Town During Winter Festival

Getting Around

Getting around Dubrovnik requires effort but you grow accustomed to climbing and descending a series of steep stone steps. I started a morning yoga routine that seems to keep me limber. I enjoy daily walks, short hikes, and climbing the stairs on the way to and from my apartment – especially at dusk and sunset when the sky and sea are vivid and dramatic. With a car, good luck finding parking near Old Town.

Winter View of Old Town and Lokrum Island from Mt. Srd

Internet is fast and unlike Berlin, you don’t get slammed with excessive advertisements. Almost everything closes on Sunday which reminds me of South Africa years ago.

Dubrovnik’s Islands in Winter – Total Croatia News

People, Cats, Food

I’ve met some lovely locals and learned about Dubrovnik’s history. Most people speak English fairly well. During business hours they move quickly, but after hours it’s a different scene.

Winter Sunset Dubrovnik

People in Dubrovnik are down-to-earth and don’t make life complicated. Some men are flirtatious :o)… It’s fun to be noticed, but even at my age, flirting back isn’t always a good idea for solo women travelers.

Old Town Cat

Winter Adriatic Sea

I don’t know but think locals are slightly overwhelmed by the ever-increasing hordes of tourists. Of course they’re a great source of income, but the summer invasion makes a huge impact. I imagine they must grow weary of the onslaught when Old Town is literally teeming with bodies.

Dubrovački Zimski Festival 2019 – tzdubrovnik.hr

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Winter is the time when locals “take back Dubrovnik”!

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Mt. Srd January 2019

I’ve noticed many stray cats – nothing like Istanbul. Most of them look healthy and like to be petted, but some are skittish and clearly feral. They’re clever and streetwise knowing when to run, which people to trust, and who in the crowd is likely to feed them at outdoor restaurants.

Statue of St Blaise Old Town Stari Grad Dubrovnik

Only a handful of restaurants are open during the winter – some better than others. Usually you can’t go wrong with seafood. So far, my favorite treat is olives! Green or black they’re absolutely divine – BIG smile. Croatian honey, dates, and oranges are also delicious. Markets around my apartment are small locally owned places with fantastic fresh produce and cheeses.

Mini Market Prima Dubrovnik

Winter Dusk before Sunset Dubrovnik

Politics, History, Money

Understanding politics in any country is a challenge, and I’m learning about Croatia through on-line newspapers and conversations with locals. What little I know about the complicated history of conflict between Dubrovnik and its Serbian neighbors is interesting, as is the Bosnian War from 20 years ago, and the Venetian, Napoleonic, and Ottoman invasions.

Church of St. Blaise and Orlando’s Column Old Town Dubrovnik

Croatia hasn’t adopted the Euro yet, but talks are in process for entering the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Some services quote rates in both Croatian Kuna and Euro – it’s confusing and there’s a big difference between the two! Taxi drivers give a price that sounds reasonable in Kuna and then when it’s time to pay, they say the price quoted was in Euro – usually an outrageous amount… My experiences with taxis in foreign countries haven’t been positive.

Portion of Steps Leading to Old Town

More Steps

Winter Limitations

It’s disappointing that during winter there are no swimming, kayaking, or boat excursions to Dubrovnik’s fabulous islands – that is unless you’re a polar bear swimmer. I’ve seen several brave souls venture out in the cold Adriatic Sea for brief early morning swims. It’s a daily ritual like with San Francisco’s Dolphin Club members who swim near Alcatraz in the cold Bay.

St. Blaise Holding Croatia in His Hand

In winter many Dubrovnik businesses close and locals take a break for a few months. It’s more difficult finding services like tours of Montenegro and Bosnia, but I’m considering the options. Of course you can rent a car and drive yourself. My last visit to Croatia was over five years ago in the summer, when I passed through Dubrovnik on the way to Split and Zagreb.

Festival of St. Blaise Dubrovnik

Festival of St. Blaise

The Festival of St. Blaise of Sebaste, Dubrovnik’s patron saint, is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. It began as far back as 971 AD. This year, Dubrovnik celebrates St. Blaise from January 24 through February 3.  On Candlemas Day they release white doves (called The Blessing of the Throats) in front of the Church of St. Blaise and then raise St Blaise’s flag at Orlando’s Column. The ritual is dramatic and colorful. Activities include “concerts, exhibitions, and theater performances dedicated to the patron saint”.

Feast Day of Saint Blaise Dubrovnik – Dubrovnik Coast

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“Statues representing St. Blaise holding Dubrovnik in his hand are the most common sight alongside Dubrovnik’s City Walls.”

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Old Town Dubrovnik in Winter – Total Croatia News

Croatia & Surrounding Countries – infohost.nmt.edu

Next Stop?

I’m working my way south and considered Malta as the next stop, but it’s part of the Schengen visa block, so it won’t work. Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Albania are of interest with Cyprus being the warmest climate. Since my last stop will be Cape Town, traveling via Cyprus is a good route but I’m doing research… Hopping over to Montenegro and spending a few weeks is an option. I’m enjoying the quiet, peaceful environment and of course Croatia’s people and incredible natural beauty!

More later…