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Delightful Old Town and a Hinterland Waiting to Be Explored

Referred to as the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, Croatia’s southernmost city is, indeed, very special. It is hard to think of any other place in the world that has survived wars and the modern-day reconstruction craze as unscathed as Dubrovnik. Featuring a pedestrian-only Old Town and an architecture that appears to have stood still in time, the city’s ideal location overlooking the Adriatic Sea guarantees abundant sunshine. A visit to Dubrovnik was high on our author’s agenda – but, ultimately, it was a long time in the making.

For many of us, the geographical area between Greece and Italy is a region we have yet to explore. Thirty years ago, I was one of those many people. Until 1990, when my sense of curiosity and an acquaintance of mine sparked the idea of making a detour to Dalmatia on a planned trip to southern Italy. Since there was –and still is- a ferry service between Bari and Dubrovnik, the idea made perfect sense.

Photos: Markus Tofalo

The entire city centre a UNESCO World Heritage site

Even back then, I knew that today’s Croatian city of Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage site and that it must be of considerable historical interest. I also knew it was formerly called Ragusa, that it was once an important trading city and that it enjoyed a long period of independence as a city-state. The influences of the Venetians, the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire are visible throughout southern Dalmatia as well as in the hinterland which, today, belongs to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is hard to find an area more unexplored than the hinterland – which is a slice of paradise for adventurers and road movie fans.

My envisaged trip to Dalmatia almost thirty years ago was cancelled, as the first of a series of Yugoslav wars broke out in 1991. It was to take more than twenty years before I could make the desired trip. However, not by ferry from southern Italy, but conveniently by plane. When approaching Dubrovnik from above, the topography typical of the region is in full display. The coastline is rocky and steep. The area behind the first mountain ridge, along the state border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, looks sparsely populated. Valleys alternate with mountain ranges. The Old Town of Dubrovnik nestles on the only fairly flat piece of land between the sea and the slopes. The rest of the city is situated on a hill. The airport is located in the south, on one of the few flat areas. The drive into the city is a scenic highlight. As for the driving etiquette, it is typically southern European, with cars parked on hatched areas – in sum, a small adventure right at the start of the holiday.

No architectural sins and notably few advertisements

This city is home to just 45,000 inhabitants. I am amazed at the magnificence and authenticity of its historic city centre, and at the discipline of the Croats who have looked after their town sparing it from modern interferences. Indeed, there are no architectural sins within the Old Town’s massive medieval walls. There are hardly any cars either, given that the only drive-through city entrance is strictly monitored.

As well as the care taken to preserve Dubrovnik’s buildings, the conservation of the city’s squares and alleyways is equally notable. The centuries-old history of the erstwhile trading city situated on the southern Adriatic Sea is literally palpable under one’s feet: the stone slabs and paving give a sense of having never been renewed. The flagstones that pave the main street “Stradun” from the harbour to the northern entrance are so worn down the facades glitter in them. By comparison, similarly old paving in other well-kept Central European cities have long been replaced with modern alternatives. Dubrovnik has not made that mistake. Careful attention is also paid to making sure that the cityscape is not tarnished by colourful advertisements. This also applies to global chains that present their brands to fit in with this. Apropos shopping: besides a still fairly moderate number of chain stores, Dubrovnik is home, above all, to small designer (and kitsch) shops.

The spectacle of the cruise ship tourists

I have been told that Dubrovnik is best avoided on days when three or more cruise ships dock in the harbour at the same time. And, indeed, I cannot help but shake my head at the spectacle: thousands of stressed cruise ship tourists storm the city and street cafés during their three to five hours ashore.

Dubrovnik is really lovely towards the late afternoon, when the cruise ship tourists have departed. I make myself comfortable in the Café Bard Mala Buža. It is one of the few cafés, if not the only one, situated outside the city walls on the side of the sea. No more than ten small tables fit on the vertical rock by the sea. A lovely location: islands off the coast, ships and water as far as the eye can see. Needless to say, this would also be a wonderful spot to enjoy the sunset. But, feeling hungry, I am drawn back to the city. Dubrovnik has no shortage of restaurants. Besides mainstream food and ćevapćići, seafood and fish are a mainstay on most of the (thankfully translated) restaurant menus.

Popular film set

When in Dubrovnik, a two-hour tour along the city wall is a must-do – despite the crowds obsessed with taking photographs and selfies. I, too, am always camera-ready. Fans of “Game of Thrones” will no doubt recognise the Minčeta Tower as the “House of Undying”. With ample backdrops used in the fantasy drama TV series, Dubrovnik also served as a location for scenes of “Star Wars 8”. Sweeping vistas across the orange roofs of the protected Old Town are to be had from the higher sections of the wall. The new tiles show no signs of patina. After the war, most of the roofs had to be repaired, the traditional way of course. As Darko, a local, explains to me with pride, they wasted no time in repairing the war damages. During the occupation from 1991 until 1992, Dubrovnik was constantly subject to shooting and shelling from the mountain.

As beautiful as Dubrovnik is – for the more adventurous like me, it does not offer a week’s worth of diversity, given that I am not one to spend an entire holiday swimming, painting, sleeping or partying. Put differently: I am also interested in what lies beyond the obvious. It should be said here that sandy beaches are few and far between along this rocky coastline; there are numerous bars, and I found the “Revelin” to be a good nightlife spot also frequented by international stars during the peak season. But, in actual fact, nightlife in Dubrovnik happens on the Stradun - and for those who cannot resist the temptation, there is also a casino.

Adventures in the hinterland

So I decide to go on a small trip. My destination: Mostar. The city in Bosnia and Herzegovina is known for its famous stone arch bridge across the river Neretva. The bridge was destroyed during the war and subsequently rebuilt. I drive north in my rental car, towards Split. An impressive cable-stayed bridge marks the western edge of the city. It appears to me that the most frequently used traffic sign is “Beware of falling rocks”. Indeed, dramatically put, the cliffs on my right are vertical, as is the steep drop to the sea on my left. The border with Bosnia and Herzegovina is just outside Dubrovnik – in fact a tiny coastal strip belongs to this otherwise landlocked country. The strip of land basically separates Dubrovnik from the Croatian heartland. Neum is the only Bosnian coastal town, and a fairly new seaside resort. This is where I leave the coastal road and drive towards the hinterland. The road along the Bosnian corridor is narrow, winding and steep. The slope is initially wooded, featuring more and more bushes with increasing altitude. The sparsely populated bushland looks very much like something out of a Western movie. And, indeed, Bosnia served as the setting for two screen adaptations of Karl May novels filmed in the 1970s; however, both films were shot further north.

Unique natural landscape

The road meanders through small villages. I reach the top of a pass. Before descending to Hutovo, I catch a glimpse of some medieval ruins. They belong to the Hadžibegova Kula fortress. Possessing a keen interest in history, I cannot resist exploring the ruins. In the evening, I read up information about the site and learn about warfare in the late Middle Ages between the Venetians and the Ottomans. The road continues –again very winding- down to the Hutovo Blato nature reserve, which consists of marshlands and a large lake. A fantastic sight! The lake resembles an oasis in the otherwise rather barren landscape. The drive from the coast to the nature reserve takes a good hour.

Like Phoenix from the ashes

I am drawn to sites and places steeped in history, but also to those affected by more contemporary events. Mostar is one such place. In the 1990s, the town along the cultural divide between the influence of the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Christian Croatian culture was one of the main hotspots of the cruellest war in Europe since World War II. Many traces of the conflict are still visible today. It must be emphasised here that present-day Mostar is in no way a dangerous place. Still, when hiking off the designated paths, signposts with mine warnings are still to be taken seriously.

Home to just over 105,000 inhabitants, Mostar can be described as a mountain town characterised by steep slopes. The first impressions of the city are sobering. Oversized concrete apartment buildings line the streets. I exchange some Croatian kuna for Bosnian konvertibilna marka and immerse myself into the city’s oriental bazaar. It is not all that big, and fairly touristy. No matter, I like it. The old city centre is dominated by stone roofs. I am amazed. Whereas in my head I still picture ruins and the remains of a famous bridge, my perceived on-site reality is that of a rebuilt city that could not be more authentic. Because there it stands, the Stari Most, that very same famous bridge and Mostar’s eponymous landmark, in its full glory. The only clue of its restoration is the pristineness of the stones. Originally constructed from 1556 to 1566, the bridge was reopened in 2004. The traces of war were expertly removed, and the entire restored area was granted the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005.

War memories

I journey back to Dubrovnik through the Neretva valley, which, according to my satnav, is the fastest route. Up to Stolac it is the same route I took to get to Mostar. But then I take the turning towards Trebinje. Having barely left Stolac, a flagged signpost written in Latin and Serbian Cyrillic letters tells me I am now in the Republika Srpska. Again, the bushland is sparsely populated, and among the few houses there are still many war ruins. After a roughly twenty-minute drive I finally come to a largish village: Ljubinje. Here, too, I am struck by the fact that the mountain ridge that separates Dalmatia from the hinterland is also something of a cultural border. Whereas the building culture by the sea is Mediterranean, things are very different here. No doubt a prolonged stay in the region would also give a sense of differences in attitude to life. Civilisation in these valleys seems to be lagging behind, with a visible decline in population. Many properties appear to be deserted, others were never restored after the war. It takes me a good two hours to reach Trebinje. I could have driven on the route that what was once part of the “Dalmatiner Bahn” (railway line) from Poljice via Hum to Ljubopvo. A shame I didn’t look into that option beforehand.

Unexpected railway nostalgia

Trebinje is less touristy. Many of its buildings are new or repaired, including the Osman-pašina mosque. Destroyed in the war twenty-five years ago, the mosque was rebuilt in 2005. The architectural highlight is the Serbian Orthodox Hercegovačka Gračanica church, perched high above the town and set in a well-kept park. I am in Trebinje around noon but spend only a short time there, as I want to reach Dubrovnik before dark. On my way out of town, I spot a discarded steam locomotive of the railway line (discontinued in 1968) next to the former railway station. The station attests to a glorious past. As I journey on to Dubrovnik, traces of the old railway line are visible on both sides of the road. Railway aficionados and nostalgists could fill entire albums with pictures of the tunnels and bridges.

I cross the border that leads me from Bosnia and Herzegovina back into Croatia at Ivanica. No sooner have I turned the first bend of the pass am I treated to a view of the wide coastal landscape of southern Dalmatia. Breathtaking! The road continues alongside the inoperative Čapljina-Dubrovnik railway line.

In terms of language, travellers will generally get by well with English and German. However, things can get tricky in the Bosnian hinterland. Thankfully, there are such things as ideograms and translation apps. Such means help visitors find their way in this fascinating other world that is all but a bit more than an hour’s flight from Zurich, allowing them to focus on enjoying and simply being amazed.

Text: Markus Tofalo