Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bosnia Meg

It was quieter this morning, my local noise polluter only indulged in a sport of impromptu hammering at 6.53 and then stopped soon afterwards. So, it may be time to briefly (you'll be delighted to learn) relate some points of limited interest about our recent trip to Croatia. We once again went to Brela as last year, and as I've already written about that (and it hasn't changed much), I won't bore you with any more. I also wrote (at length) about the trip to get there through Romania, Hungary and Croatia.

This year we chose to take a different route, and eschewing the easy-breezy motorways of Hrvatska, went via the most direct route: Csikszereda - Timisoara - Belgrade - Sarajevo - Brela. Now we had been specifically warned off travelling through Bosnia with reports of terrible roads and lack of infrastructure. Everyone I asked for recommendations looked at me with an exaggeratedly raised eyebrow and an "Are you sure you want to drive through Bosnia?"

Before reaching that dangerous land though we first had to go through a minor (but potentially disastrous)mechanical failure that mercifully becalmed us not in the middle of Bosnia or even in Deva or somewhere, but still within the safe confines of Szekely Land, where we have people we know who could help out (and they did - hugely). So after a short but worrying break wondering what Plan B was of 5 unscheduled hours in Székelykeresztúr (Cristuru Secuiesc), we were back on the road.

We had hoped to get to Timisoara by mid afternoon to spend the time with some friends, but obviously that didn't happen, so we just had to get the benefit of their munificent hospitality for a few short hours before collapsing exhausted. The next morning it was up and on to the former Yugoslavia. We reached the border on the road from Timisoara to Belgrade and it was there that we encountered our second problem of the trip - the car insurance green card that we had purchased for just this international out-of-the-EU eventuality was shown by a smirking Serb border guard to not actually include Serbia. So we had to buy insurance at the border - for €135. For about 4 hours of being in Serbia. Were we annoyed by this eventuality? Somewhat. I was even tempted to use exclamation marks there to underline the upsetting nature of the whole experience.

Anyway, we swallowed our irritation, bought the bloody insurance, and trundled onwards towards Belgrade. I have very few skills of which I can be proud, but one of the ones which I do have is the uncanny ability to navigate my way through unfamiliar places. Give me a map for a few minutes pre-arrival so I know roughly what I'm heading for, and then let me loose. Thus it was that through the chaos of downtown Belgrade after crossing the Danube that I amazed my passengers and the car following us, by exactly getting onto the road we wanted to be on leaving the city, without backtracking once and despite the fact that there wasn't a single sign to be seen anywhere. I might be crap at most things, but if they made urban navigation an olympic sport I could be in TeamGB (TM) at the 2012 Olympics.

Onto a motorway (our only one of the trip) and into the top end of Croatia, before cutting south into the badlands of Bosnia. The first bit we were in was the "Republika Srpska" and it did look a bit trashed up to be honest, with loads of still gutted and burned out houses. It kind of oozed post war poverty, and to add to the feeling it had started raining the moment we crossed the border from Croatia at Slavonski Brod. The road was fine though, the only slight difficulty being that the road signs were all in Cyrillic (unlike Serbia, for example), as some kind of continuing statement of non-Bosnian-ness. As soon as we saw the first minaret as we approached the non-border between the two semi-partitioned bits of the country, the sun came out and the rebuilding seemed to have come on much further. I presume, though don't know for sure, that the Muslim-Croat bit of the country has been getting aid from various sources since the war and the Serb bit less so (and perhaps the burnt out houses were previously owned by ethnically cleansed Muslims anyway who understandably weren't that desperate to move back in). Anyway, it was quite a contrast in the two regions.

However, despite the dire warnings of people from all over the place the roads in Bosnia were perfectly fine. They don't have motorways (but then neither does Romania for the most part), so everything is single lane winding roads along gorgeous valleys - you can't go fast, but in scenery like that who'd want to? The roads themselves are perfectly fine and comparable with the better ones in Romania. (As we approached Sarajevo, mind you, we did actually find ourselves guided onto a brand new motorway, causing Erika to bury her head in her hands and mutter about the shamefulness that a country so recently torn to pieces by civil war should have managed to get itself together enough to start work on infrastructure projects that Romania still talks and argues and does bugger-all about. Someone is getting very rich off the mysterious Bors-Brasov motorway, but there is precious little evidence of anyone actually doing any work).

I did my 21st Century Magellan bit in Sarajevo again, skipping through the city with ease and finding our hotel on the first go. We then wandered into Bascarsija, the old bit of the city, and had a delicious Turkish style dinner, with copious beer, before retiring. The next morning we saw it all again in daylight and without the beer. All very attractive and like a mini-version of the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. We then headed off along more gorgeous valley roads to Mostar. Mostar was even more war ravaged than Sarajevo (and of course Mostar was a city ripped apart by its own residents who now still live side-by-side, which is not exactly the case in Sarajevo), but it seems to have a lively tourist industry going on centred on the old town and the famous bridge which was recently rebuilt and reopened (luckily from a distance and from on it, you can't see that the keystone is carved with the words Red Bull on the outside).

From there it was on to Medugorje for the Catholic members of our party to get their religious kicks. Medugorje being a place of pilgrimage since the 80s when a group of teenagers started chatting to Mary of an evening. Not a local resident called Mary, you understand, but the mother of Jesus - that Mary. Anyway, I discovered that one of them is still having a chinwag with her every year and she does this kind of annual message thing, rather like the Queen at Xmas, or the headmaster of a school at the beginning of the academic year (to choose a topical analogy). No idea what she says, but it seems to be of the "Greetings my children, keep going to church and you will find my son in your hearts" variety. Because the place is so new (or at least it is as a tourist destination) it's not really very interesting to the non-follower, being essentially just a huge great modern church stuck in the middle of a nondescript village which is now filled with loads of shops selling religious paraphernalia and kitsch (though I didn't see anything quite as fantastic as the Jesus-on-the-cross snowstorms or the moving eye pictures of h(H)im with his crown of thorns and everything - look his eyes are open, no closed, open, closed - that they sell at Bom Jesus in Braga, Portugal.)

From there it was on through the world's most laid back border crossing (Bosnian guard on deckchair cleaning nails with large knife grunts and moves head very slightly to indicate "go on", followed by Croatian guard who does actually check that you have things that look like passports from a distance before waving you through similarly) and down to the sea at Makarska. It was a great drive, honestly, and tons more interesting than the faster "zipping through Croatia by motorway" approach. (And if your ever need to drive through Bosnia, it's completely fine and extremely pleasing on the eye).

See, I'm back to my long winded and tedious best - it's like I never went away.


Gadjo Dilo said...

Don't worry about being detailed, Andy, I for one actually need this information: planning a holiday with friends from Cluj to Croatia next year, hoping to pursuade them to take the overnight train to Split, but suspect that I can't now defend my "driving through Bosnia would be a nightmare" theory!

(Seriously, how long did it take you?)

Andy said...

GD: From Slavonski Brod to Sarajevo took us about 5 hours I think, and then from Sarajevo to the border with Croatia about 3.5/4 hours driving time(? that one is more difficult to say as we stopped twice and I'm not entirely sure)

I think in total Cluj - Split would be about 17/18 hours via Bosnia and about 15 via the motorways of Hungary and Croatia (ie Oradea-Debrecen-Budapest-Zagreb-Split)

Gadjo Dilo said...

Thanks Andy, that's helpful. I reckon I'll still be arguing that we have to get the train :-) (And hiring a car there if we absolutely have to.)

Anonymous said...

It usually takes three and a half hours from Slavonski Brod to Sarajevo and three hours from Sarajevo to Croatian border near Capljina.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, just the sort of information I was looking for - but I'm looking forward to summer, 2009, already. My plan is to travel from Barcelona to Athens by car with family (myself, husband, 2 well-used-to-road-trips teenage daughters). Quite happy to take a month there and back including a little time in Athens. Any thoughts you could spare me?

Andy said...


I guess it depends on your criteria - would you like to have travel heavy days and then stop for a few in one area, or would you like to do something like 4 hours a day and just keep moving?

I can certainly recommend spending some time in Croatia and Bosnia on your route.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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sultanahmet said...

Istanbul !!!
I have a dream.
I will go to Istanbul again.