Backpacking the Former Yugoslavia v.1: Bosnia to Montenegro

Fort Lovrijenac in Croatia, former Yugoslavia

Welcome to my very first Global Debauchery feature! Instead of bombarding subscribers with email notifications for ten days straight, I decided I’d consolidate my features into three parts, today’s post being part 1, of course. For folks who’ve read my journal posts on Facebook, you may remember this little gem from a couple years ago. For those of you who haven’t, get ready to fly, bus, and train through Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia with me in my “Backpacking the Former Yugoslavia” series. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed experiencing!


Getting to the Former Yugoslavia

Caught an overnight flight out to Istanbul to start our tour of the former Yugoslavia. As a general rule, I bundle up when flying because I’m terribly cold sensitive, but this flight was a ten-hour hotbox. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I was stripped down to a tank top with no socks and sweating profusely.

If ever there were a stereotype about “smelling European,” I was fulfilling every part of it by the time we landed. Despite this, I must’ve slept pretty well because ten hours passed quickly; Flexeril does a body good, I guess. I only got through half of “The Armstrong Lie,” while Jeff successfully completed four movies.

Turkish Air & Istanbul Airport

Props to Turkish Air, by the way; they give you slippers and socks and headphones and toothbrushes and toothpaste and stuff you chock full with Mediterranean goodness. For free. (Yes, that’s a direct challenge to our rip-off American airlines with terrible customer service.)

The Istanbul airport is a good-sized airport. Crowded. They drive you out to your aircraft on the tarmac, even for large flights; the gate is simply where you catch your shuttle. Interesting to me, though not at all surprising, was how diverse the population was. Lots of full burkas, obviously… but with Chanel bags. Flight to Sarajevo was a quick two hours.

Welcome to… Sniper Alley?

Though dark when we arrived, the bullet-riddled projects were clearly visible. Dilapidated, abandoned. Some buildings were partially blasted and still partially inhabited. Children ran between cars at intersections asking for money. Lots of graffiti.

I later read that the areas by the airport, Dobrinja and Novo Sarajevo, were dubbed “Sniper Alley” during the Yugoslavian War; Serbs sat on hillsides and picked off civilians. This is also where the UN dug an 800 meter tunnel underground to supply provisions to city residents and how some 4,000 Sarajevans escaped. It still remains the “Serbian part of town.”

Sarajevo’s Stari Grad

Fortunately for us, we stayed in Stari Grad, “old town.” This is the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) area of Sarajevo. Largely, not entirely, revitalized. We learned quickly that, while everything is quoted in Euros, Bosnians only accept the Convertible Mark (KM) and that, strangely, aside from Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, the area’s common second language is German.

Our hotel room was huge and nice enough, though we couldn’t get the air conditioning to work. A little exasperating after our sweltering flight. Learned the hotel restaurant didn’t serve alcohol so, even though we were completely exhausted, that provided enough motivation to venture outside into Sarajevo’s club district at ten o’clock at night.

Got drinks and light fare and people-watched for a while. I think the only other Americans in Bosnia found us and sat at the very next table over. They were obnoxious. The same thing happened in New Zealand. I think they sniff us out.

Dinarics to Dubrovnik

Dragged myself out of bed at 5:30 am to catch an early bus to Dubrovnik. Noticed an inconvenient sign in our hotel bathroom that we didn’t see the night before. It read not to leave water running and that the City of Sarajevo shuts the water system off every night due to a shortage. Fortunately, Jeff and I both managed a quick shower, but the water never warmed up. Not. One. Single. Degree.

Sarajevo in Daylight

Taxied to the bus station and got to see a little more of Sarajevo in the daylight. Bullet holes everywhere in every building. Passed back through Novo Sarajevo and saw the famous Holiday Inn that journalists frequented during the war.

I had the same sort of epiphany I had in Budapest regarding Communism—the realization that everyone my own age in this particular city endured the Yugoslavian War and likely has extraordinarily vivid memories of it. My memories of it are fairly decent simply because I lived at NATO headquarters in Europe when it started and everyone’s parents were getting shipped off, but it’s not this distant thing that happened in some far away country for these people. I started doing some more in-depth reading about it in my tour books, but… far too many factions for me to keep track of to have a good grasp on the finer details.

Random aside: Sarajevo has a stray dog epidemic. They’re everywhere. They even have random doghouses in parking lots. A cafe this morning at the bus station had a box outside for a few puppies pummeling one another over a free panini. Just an observation. Hurts my heart.

Dinarics to Dubrovnik

Bussed through the Dinaric Alps on our way to Dubrovnik. All I can say is ah-mazing. I’d heard good things about road tripping the Balkans; I wasn’t disappointed. You basically follow a pure teal river through black, heavily forested mountains. Forest turns to brush and black rock turns into white as you make your way to the coast. Wanted to stop in Mostar for a few hours, but was at the mercy of the local bus schedule and decided to spend the afternoon in Dubrovnik instead.

Arrival in Croatia

Dropped our stuff off at the hotel. Lucked out with a fantastic view. Headed into Old Town to walk aimlessly around the Walled City. A citadel, countless churches, fountains, cobble stone, alleys and stairs. It was like Venice, but all white and on a craggy cliffside.

Had drinks at an awesome bar Jeff looked up, Buza Bar; multi-level, it sits cliffside just outside the wall. Caught some sun and watched yachts, kayakers, and daredevil divers. There are so many things to see and do in Dubrovnik. Reintroduced myself to legit pistachio gelato; am convinced I won’t leave until I’ve eaten every container available. Caught a relaxing dinner over sunset.

Getting an early night. Taking a day trip into Montenegro. I’ll keep you posted.

A Day in Montenegro

Jeff woke up with a sore throat this morning. He’s certain it’s Ebola since the gate next to us at the Istanbul airport was headed to Chad. Or MERS since we stopped in Istanbul at all. Or SARS since we saw an Asian girl with a face mask on. We had a brief discussion about whether she was ill or whether she thought we looked ill, in which case we’d feign offense. Finally, he suggested it might be a delayed case of SIDS. Either way, he’s still alive and sitting right next to me.

The Way to Montenegro

Hopped on a bus tour to Montenegro this morning. I was desperately hoping it would be a small, intimate tour, but turns out it’s an entire coach bus. We even stopped at a tiny airport to pick up some obviously wealthy, very loud Americans… who were late and made the other 26 of us wait. So… can’t wait to spend the next twelve hours with them.

Right now, they’re mocking Montenegro’s passport control, attempting to connect to wifi (which actually belongs to the bus next to us), and taking photos with their iPads. All signs of supreme awesomeness.

Former Yugoslavia Passport Control

Speaking of passport control, I forgot to mention yesterday that we accumulated a bunch of new passport stamps by default. On our way to Dubrovnik, we got stamps upon entering Croatia, but we then skirted into this tiny coastal part of BiH that actually divides Croatia in two. So, we got a stamp for going back in, and then for going back out again. For those of you that don’t know me, I hoard passport stamps and foam at the mouth a little at the mere possibility of accumulating new ones. The former Yugoslavia is the perfect place to get that fix.

Kotor, Montenegro

Anyway, back to today: Drove down the coast to Kotor, Montenegro. An incredibly gorgeous coastline. Perfect for a full Montenegro road trip, really. Apparently, Croatia is referred to as the “country of a thousand islands” since it literally has over one thousand islands. Each has its own story, of course. One of them acted as a quarantine for Old Town Dubrovnik, where everyone was required to stay for forty days before entry to the town to ensure you were disease-free. …Jeff is now certain he’s awoken some ancient Croatian disease.

The drive around Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor was pretty amazing. Heard lots of great stories about all the little towns we passed through. Stopped at the town of Kotor, another walled city, where we had some time to wander the alleys and check out the churches.

Most interestingly, Kotor has a fortress over a thousand steps up the mountainside with a church halfway up, presumably to pray to God you can make it all the way up, or to thank him you’ve made it as far as you have. Jeff and I did not brave this challenge; it was pretty intimidating. Google it before you judge.

One thing we’ve noticed in these walled cities is the number of cats everywhere. And these are like the laziest, happiest cats in existence. I suggested it was because there were no cars and lots of visitors to pet them. Then Jeff saw a whole bunch, all hanging out together… under a few pig spits. Well played, kittehs. Well played indeed.

25 Switchbacks on a Bus

The tour continued up into the mountains of… “Montenegro,” or “black mountain”… to visit the birthplace village of the country’s first king, which proffers beer and ham and cheese. To get there, you have to drive 25 switchbacks (yes, 25) on a one-lane road, all the way up.

We were getting into our very first switchback when we encountered three busses in the opposite direction, so… we backed aaalll the way back down to let them by. A pretty tight fit. Not for the weak-of-heart. We also encountered a random mountain cow who seemed confused and took her sweet time moving off the road, poor thing.

Drove through Cetinje, the country’s original capital and it’s supposed cultural center; nothing of much note there, if you ask me. Went back down to the resort city of Budva, where the rich and famous play. Walked our third walled city, marveled at yachts, and just decided to have some drinks.

Backpacking the Former Yugoslavia Continues Tomorrow…

A long day, but fun nonetheless. Still attempting to plan tomorrow’s travels out. Not the easiest task in the former Yugoslavia. The rail system isn’t built back up since the war and all the buses are privatized with bad, outdated websites. Our best bet for reliable travel information has really been travel forums. If all goes well, we’ll be stopping in Split, Croatia for a few hours and then moving on to Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Jeff’s still doing fine, by the way.

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Cheers, Jordan