Bustling through the Balkans

Woke up after a restless sleep on my flight from Cape Town thanks to the obnoxious man next to me who had decided that half my seat was also apparently his seat.  I was a bit out of it due to my lack of sleep so it wasn’t until the captain announced we were landing soon and said the local time and date that I realised it was my birthday, hooray!

Got into Dubai early morning and transferred straight away to my flight to Munich, had a full row to myself (thanks for the birthday present Emirates), and a few hours later I had landed.  Went to arrivals where my friend Cassie was waiting for me, super exciting to see her as it had been over a year since she’d moved to Sweden!  We grabbed our bags and got an Uber to the bus station, our driver was going 160km/h at one stage and having just had 2 months in Africa where the top speed the truck travelled was 80km/h – I was freaking out!

We got on our bus at 4:30pm after eating a delicious kebab (seriously amazing), left Germany behind and entered Austria, had the most beautiful scenery along the way, amazing mountains!  Stopped along the way and we had a celebratory pretzel and beer, continued on our way and at 9:30pm we had arrived at our final destination, Ljubljana, Slovenia!

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Birthday done right!

Checked into the hostel and went to the bar for birthday beers.  Just before midnight we decided to check out a place that supposedly had the best burek in town, it did not disappoint! I got the meat one, delicious AND only 1 euro! The clock ticked past midnight and my birthday was over! Had spent my birthday in 4 different countries, eating delicious food and drinking beer! Perhaps a bit symbolic of what the next year was going to bring for me!

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Amazing burek!

The next day we got up early, we only had the one day to explore Ljubljana so had to make the most of it.  Got a bus an hour away to Lake Bled which was stunning despite the chilly weather!  Stopped at a small hotel for a Slovenian breakfast, fresh bread, sliced meat, antipasto, cheese – delicious!

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Seriously so good, food was so fresh!

Spent the next hour walking around the lake, went up to a castle on the hill, had coffee in a cute café and then hopped on the 1:30pm but back to Ljubljana.

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Lake Bled

Back in the city we had a wander around old town, which was really nice! Lots of old buildings and really clean streets.  Sat down for a late lunch and just people watched until the evening.  Headed back to the hostel to grab our bags and then went to the bus station.

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Boarded the bus and a few hours later we had arrived in Zagreb, Croatia – unfortunately it was just a pit stop before we headed south the next morning.  Our hostel was pretty cool and I wish we could’ve spent longer but we had a lot to fit in the next 2 weeks!  We had a beer and made a plan for the next day, it was going to be a big day, lots of buses, bit of sightseeing and crossing the border into Bosnia & Hercegovina.

Another early start to get the 7:30 bus to Plitvice Lakes, we got to the station only to find out the bus was sold out.  Next bus was at 8:40 so we booked on to that and went and got some breakfast, had an amazing antipasto roll, never been so happy to miss a bus before. Had mushrooms, peppers, lettuce, feta, eggplant and the bread was sooo fresh!  Bought another one to have for lunch later! We decided to book our bus on from Plitvice Lakes because we didn’t want to have another fully booked bus situation, so went online and booked a bus from Bihac, Bosnia to Jajce, Bosnia.  We contacted a local taxi driver to pick us up from Plitvice Lakes and to drive across the border to Bihac – all sorted!

Hopped on our bus and passed out asleep straight away, woke up for the last half hour which I’m glad I did because scenery was fantastic! Arrived at 11am to Plitvice Lakes, dropped our bags in storage and then set off into the park to do the 3.5km walk.

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Plitvice Lakes

The lakes were so beautiful! The water was crystal clear and the leaves were just starting to turn yellow, red and orange which contrasted amazingly against the water. It was pretty busy and it wasn’t even high season, I had read they had banned selfie sticks at the park which isn’t surprising, I can only imagine how many people have been wacked by selfie sticks and almost fallen into the water.  We finished the trail earlier than anticipated so we sat down in a quiet area a bit off the path and enjoyed our lunch looking over the lakes.

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Went and grabbed our bags and met our taxi driver out the front, we headed towards the border, felt like we were middle of nowhere, not many people take this route into Bosnia.  As we were driving along I suddenly had the thought that it was actually not the smartest thing to have booked a random taxi company we found online and drive us across the border, Cass had had the same thought and she had messaged her boyfriend telling him where we were. No need for worry as 20 minutes later we had crossed the border and were safely dropped at the bus station in Bihac.  Bihac was a very very small town, and the station was tiny!  We had booked the 4pm bus but there wasn’t a whole lot of activity going on, I decided to go investigate.  Went into the ticket counter and showed the man my booking on the phone, after a whole lot of hand gestures between two people who couldn’t speak the others language I figured out the bus that we had booked wasn’t actually coming today. Crap. He wrote down that there was an 11pm bus, and I was like well guess that’s what we will do! Went and filled in Cass on the situation, we were going to book the 11pm bus when a young guy with a bit of English offered to help.  I showed him the website we had booked on and he said he had never seen the website before but there was a 7:15pm bus we could catch, hooray!  Bought tickets for that, we had a few hours to kill and the only thing open was a small pub at the station.  Went inside the little dark room and there were 2 cops sitting and drinking, next few hours we sat and drank watching the different sorts of people coming in and out.  For about an hour there were 2 men just staring at us at the bar.  We went outside at 7 to get the bus, while we were in the pub the station had gone from deserted to packed! Our bus arrived, we raced on and were pulling out a moment later – they won’t wait for you here! Slept most of the ride which I’m glad because the driver was going like a maniac!  A few minutes before we arrived the driver slammed on the brakes, bags went flying, I braced myself against the chair in front, Cass said we had just been inches from hitting a car that ran a red light! When we arrived the driver was shaking he was so terrified!

We walked about 10 minutes through the town Jajce to our hotel, dropped our bags and went for pizza around the corner because we were starving.  Got back to the room and we fell asleep while watching hilarious Bosnian music videos on TV.

Following morning we had a “sleep in”, got up at 8am and headed off for the day.  Jajce is a really small town, and I don’t think they get many tourists at all, absolutely no English spoken here which I actually really like!  Our plan was to hire bikes to ride to the watermills but the bike hire place had no bikes…  We had to taxi instead, but first we decided to book our bus tickets for that afternoon after the mess from yesterday.  We booked the 2:15pm bus to Mostar, waited for ages for a taxi to come by and then had him drive us to the watermills.  About 15 minutes later we got dropped off at the watermills, really cool looking place!

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Watermills of Jajce

They look like tiny houses on stilts over the water, about 20 of them all linked by wooden bridges.

We had ducked into the small tourist information in Jajce and the lady had told us there was a hotel and café next to the lake, so our plan was to go have lunch and then get a taxi back.  After a wander around the watermills we went to the lakeside to find the hotel and well… the only café we could see was an abandoned house with a sign that said café, and as for the hotel… I’ve got no idea!

We ended up walking down some random dirt road past some houses, no idea where we were, took a wrong turn, had to turn back, ended up on a backroad and had to walk through a few tunnels which were definitely designed for one car at a time.  We would wait to make sure no cars were coming then sprint through the tunnel to the other side. Got to the main road and there was a massive tunnel to the left, no way were we walking through that, and to the right was a sign that said café and wifi, we went that way.

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Walked up the road and all we could find was a liquor shop where 2 guys and a young girl were having lunch on a cardboard table, amazingly one of them spoke English! They called us a taxi and a few minutes later a guy showed up and drove us back to town.  For a moment I thought we were going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere!  Back in town we went for a walk up the top of the hill along cobblestone streets to the old fortress, had a quick walk around, nice views of the area!

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Views from the top of the mountain

Headed down to the main town past lots of destroyed houses with bullet holes in them from the war.  Seemed like most of the town was sitting along the main road drinking coffee, we decided to join them and people watch.

From there we walked a couple of minutes to the main sight in town, the waterfall.  Jajce is known as the town that was built on top of a waterfall, it’s quite a beautiful sight.  We paid to go up close to it which probably wasn’t necessary as it was more impressive looking at it from afar.

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Jajce Waterfall

We went back to the hotel, grabbed our bags and got to the bus station.  Hopped on the bus at 2:20 and headed off towards Mostar.  The scenery was AMAZING! Soooo beautiful! We were up high in the mountains and were heading down, crazy heights, windy roads and blue rivers!  We went through a lot of towns which still hadn’t been restored since the war, lots of bullet ridden houses, sitting next to houses that had been fully restored.

One of the towns we went through that had the most destroyed houses was called Bugojno.  We decided to look up the town and find out a bit more about it.  Turns out there was an “ethnic cleanse” within Bugojno the town had gone from being majority Croats to there now being none, some were expelled, some were in concentration camps and some just went missing.  It was pretty confronting driving through that town.

We got into Mostar at 5pm and got a taxi to our guesthouse, greeted by the owner Taso.  Really friendly guy who made us tea and gave us food and sight recommendations.  The guesthouse had photos on the wall from what it looked like after the war, it had basically been completely destroyed but Taso’s family had built it back up again.  We signed up to do his day tour the following day as well. Went to the place he recommended for dinner and it did not disappoint, wow!  It was a meat platter for two and honestly it could have fed 4-5 people.  We had lots of cats sitting around our feet for company, but strangely enough they disappeared when we finished eating…  After dinner we wandered through the old town, Mostar is such a beautiful town I was keen to see it in the daylight!

We ended up at a pub with 2 Dutch guys we had met at the restaurant, pretty cool place with live music.  Had a few beers but headed back reasonably early as we were wrecked from the big day.

Had a slow start to the day which was nice, got ready to go for our tour at 10am.  While waiting I got chatting to a guy in our dorm, he had spent 5 months in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia and was interviewing young people about nationalism and their attitude towards the war and moving on from it for his University thesis.  He had interviewed a 22 year old Croat the day before who had said to him that if anyone came to his side of town he would “beat the shit out of them” and he knew all the Croats in town so if he didn’t recognise you and you were on his side of town he would beat you.  He said of all the places he had interviewed people Mostar had the worst segregation between Croats and Bosnians.  Apparently before the war there was a 50% crossover between them for marriage, but after the wall there is no crossover.  Some people in Mostar have never see Stari Most (old bridge) because it’s not on their side of town and it is not safe to cross into town that is not their area.  They have their own schools, hospitals etc, complete segregation!  I could’ve talked to him for hours about it, but unfortunately I had to leave for our tour.

We hopped into Taso’s car with 3 others from our hostel and headed off for the day.  First stop was Blagaj Tekija, a beautiful monastery sitting on the water.

We had breakfast next to the river before exploring, Taso ordered the local delicacies meat burek, cheese burek and a savoury donut served with feta. So. Damn. Good.  Served with Bosnian coffee, which wow, I’ve never considered myself a coffee drinker, but I think Bosnia was going to change that.  While eating Taso explained the countries name Bosnia & Hercogovina, essentially it is two countries within one.  There are the Bosnians which makes up 75% of the country and the Hercegovinians which is 25% of the country in the south.  They are different people, culture, lives etc, no tension or conflict between the two, that is just how the country is made up, they have never felt the need to separate the countries.  After we finished breakfast we had a bit of time to explore the river and go inside the monastery, very pretty area.

From there we drove too Pocitelj, a beautiful old town built up on a mountain.  After the war there are only 35 full time residents that still live there, all the youth have moved to other parts of the country.

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The best way for them to make money is by selling fruit and handicrafts to the tourists that come by, a shame really because it’s such a beautiful town that is going to fall apart without more residents and money.  Taso drove us to the castle at the top of the hill, we explored the castle and then slowly walked down to the bottom, I bought a cup of raspberries on the way, yum!

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Bought delicious raspberries from this lady

Next stop was Kravica Waterfalls, tallest falls in Bosnia at 29m.  The sun was shining for the first time in days and I hadn’t brought swimwear because of the terrible weather.  We had 2 hours free time to swim and explore, Cass jumped into the water and lasted about 2-3 minutes because the water was so cold, wasn’t upset about leaving my swimmers behind.

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If you look closely you can see the pain in Cass’s face in the freezing water!

We sat in the sun and had a beer before lunch, Taso ordered us a meat platter with bread and cheese, again it was so delicious! I love the food in Bosnia!

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Kravica Falls

We finished up and headed to the next stop, beautiful scenery along the way as per usual.

We went to an old bunker that used to hide up to 25 planes during the war.  It was huge and super creepy.  We drove inside and around a corner where Taso turned the headlights off so it was pitch black.  Inside was spooky, lots of debris everywhere.  Pretty incredible to see such a huge thing that had been hidden during the war.

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Our final stop was back in Mostar, an abandoned bank that during the war had been used by snipers.

Taso showed us how to get in, had to jump over a wall on one side and then walk through the building up to the roof.  Inside there was soooo much broken glass and debris, every window had been smashed in the building, graffiti everywhere.  Walked up about 10 levels to the top on an open staircase, wouldn’t want to slip.  At the top level there was a metal ladder we climbed up to get on the roof.

There was a bunch of people up the top, we just missed the sunset but were able to check out the views over the city.

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Views from the top

Decided to head back down before it got dark, honestly I was glad to leave the place behind.

Back at the hostel Taso gave us a bottle of wine to finish up the tour, it had been such an incredible and informative tour, we were pretty stoked at the end of it.

We went for dinner with the others from our tour at 7:30, went to a small restaurant had a decent meal and went back to the pub from the night before.  We left at about midnight, walked outside the pub and were swarmed by a group of stray dogs.  The dogs ended up escorting us the whole way back to our hostel, was kind of fun having a dog crew.  Got inside and went to bed.

Woke up after a good sleep and walked into old town after breakfast.  We got there a bit early to avoid all the tourists that would show up later on day trips from Dubrovnik.  Got some pictures of the bridge from a bit far away and then we walked down to the waters edge looking up at the bridge.  Poked my finger in the water, freezing! It is apparently the coldest flowing river in the world!

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Stari Most

We headed back up into the old town and it was already starting to get busy, we spent an hour or so strolling through the old Turkish bazaar, bought a couple of things along the way.

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We went to the war photo museum near the bridge, amazing museum.  A photographer from New Zealand snuck into Bosnia during the war disguised as a soldier to photograph the whole thing.  The photos were incredible, it showed during the war and then after the war along with a narrative.  Really glad we went there because it gave us a bit more understanding of what the war had been like.  There were photos of the day to day lives of people and when the bridge had been blown up.  Something that stood out was that a lot of the photos showed the streets, and there were lines that people had drawn on most walls in the city that basically said don’t poke your head above this line because you are in a sniper’s range.

When we left the museum a crowd had started to gather because men were gathering tips to jump off the bridge.  We decided to go into the café next to the photo museum that overlooked the bridge.  Coolest little café with really nice décor, and the perfect seat overlooking the bridge.

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The café owner was super friendly and chatty, he was telling us the seats we were in had sat lots of famous people including Prince Charles (apparently half the old town got cleared out for security reasons when he was there because no one was allowed to be within 300m of him), Pavarotti, Hamish and Andy plus heaps of other people I can’t remember.  He was very proud of his café.  He was giving us tips on how to live a happy life and that we should always smile because that’s something that no one can take from you etc.  He told us that of the foreigners that jump off the bridge 20% of them are Australians, he was impressed by Australian bravery (you won’t get me jumping off that damn bridge).

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Our mate in the coffee shop, yes he is eating a lemon

By the time we had finished our coffee the men had got enough tips and were getting the crowd to start clapping, dressed just in his speedos the man jumped off and did a smooth dive into the icy water. The crowds quickly disappeared after that.

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Diving off the bridge

We reluctantly left the coffee shop behind as we had to catch our bus.  We were on the last bus to Dubrovnik at 12:30 and it was packed! I sat next to a woman who was travelling with her daughter, she told me all the things she didn’t like about Bosnia especially the fact that no one spoke English and how can they expect to maintain tourism if they don’t learn English blah blah blah.  I just responded and said it was unreasonable to expect someone to speak your language when you are visiting their country, put my headphones in and turned away.

The border crossing into Croatia was the longest one we had yet, the drivers assistant went along collecting all our passports, 40 minutes later he came back with all the passports stamped.  He was yelling peoples names out and no one could understand them so he thrusted all the passports on a passenger and she took over returning the passports. My passport is like gold, I watched her like a hawk until I got mine back. Because of the geography of Croatia and Bosnia we crossed into Croatia for about 20 minutes, then drove back through Bosnia and then back into Croatia.  We got into Dubrovnik about an hour later than planned, got a taxi to near where our place was but had to walk up and down stairs to find our Airbnb. Which wouldn’t have been a big deal if my bag didn’t weigh about 27kgs…

We finally found the Airbnb and the owner showed us inside, really nice place with an awesome view over the old city! Dumped our bags and walked into the old town, it wasn’t too busy at this time, we think because all the people on cruise ships had returned to their ships.

Looked at a number of restaurants, so damn expensive, came to the conclusion it was just going to be an expensive stay in Dubrovnik.  Had a delicious seafood platter, worth the extra $$$.  We slowly made our way back to the apartment, watched a movie and went to bed.

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Seafood platter!

Had a bit of a sleep in the next day, we had decided we would cook up a feast for dinner so once we were ready we headed to the market.  We bought prawns and octopus, got some fruit and vegetables and then some cheese and sliced meats!

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Walked back towards the apartment stopping for a delicious breakfast sandwich on the way.  The walk was mostly uphill and the sun was blaring down, I was glad to get back to the apartment and drop off the food!

We headed back out to the old town, wandered around for a bit, ate a gelato, then headed to the big castle outside the old town.

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The castle is used for Kings Landing in Game of Thrones (lots of recognisable scenes from Game of Thrones here).  We missed the turn for the castle and ended up on a random hill, which worked out well because the views were beautiful looking back over the castle and old town.  Headed back to the castle, got there and didn’t want to pay the entrance fee so after all that we skipped it.

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Stumbled upon this view

Went back to the old town and had a wander around the streets before stopping for a light lunch at an oyster and sushi bar.  We splurged and had a few oysters each and sushi plus wine of course.  Delicious!

We had a further walk around the town stopped in a shop and bought pate and fig jam for our feast and bought some wine a bit further along.  We were pretty tired so we headed back to the apartment to start cooking up our feast.

We boiled the prawns with salt, had garlic butter squid, made bruschetta and laid out all the meats and cheese. We definitely cooked way too much and had to do a few trips to carry our 6 plates of food up to the terrace.  Spent the remainder of the afternoon feasting, drinking wine and watching the sunset.  Perfect end to our day in Dubrovnik!

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Next morning we packed up our bags and stored them outside the apartment.  I had contacted my parents the day before because they were coming from Kotor to Dubrovnik that day and I was hoping we would cross paths, they weren’t sure of their plans but we would keep in contact.

Cass and I headed to the old town to walk around the castle walls, 2km all the way around.  Started our walk before the large crowds arrived, great views all around.  Stopped halfway along for a coffee overlooking the ocean, very nice!  Continued on the walk, we ended up spending about 2 hours walking around the walls.

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Finished up and went for a gelato, sat by the fountain and people watched for a while which was great.  I contacted my parents again and they thought they’d be at the old town at 1:30pm, we needed to be at the apartment at 1:30pm to make our bus in time but we decided to push it and see if I could see them briefly.

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People watching by the fountain

While waiting we went and got lunch, had a delicious chicken sandwich and was one of the cheaper meals we had in Dubrovnik.  We sat by the main entry gate until 1:40 waiting for my parents but in the end had to leave to get our bus. Picked our bags up from the apartment and got an uber to the bus station, we left at 3pm on an absolute clunker of a bus.  The clutch wasn’t working properly, we kept stalling, bus was making noises, genuinely thought it would fall apart on the ride, at least the scenery was beautiful.

We crossed into Montenegro leaving Croatia behind, a short while later we arrived in Kotor.  We walked about 10 minutes into town to our apartment for the night. Left the bags in the room and went for a walk around the city, so many cats everywhere! Shops selling cat related things, there is a cat museum, locals leave food and water out for the cats. Cats cats cats!  We went to a recommended restaurant for dinner and honestly the food was terrible, it was a bit disappointing.  We went back to the room fairly early and watched a movie before bed.  Before I fell asleep I got a message from my parents, turns out they had got to the main gate less than 5 minutes after we had left!

We were almost halfway through our time in the Balkans and it had gone so quickly!  I was keen to see what Montenegro and Albania would bring!

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Sunset over Dubrovnik Old Town