10/09/2014 - 10/10/2014
Once we got back to the mainland from Hvar, our main focus was getting into Bosnia and I still wasn't sure taking the rental car was the best course of action. I was worried about being told we didn't have the right paperwork at the border, and if we did get through then having no insurance coverage if there was an accident or the car got stolen. Mei Ling didn't feel that concerned, but she was willing to humor my anxieties. We drove from the ferry port of Drvenik to Ploce, the main town in that area where I thought we might be able to find a train or bus to Mostar in Bosnia. Once we got to Ploce, we realized we were pretty hungry and needed to find lunch before it got too late. The problem was that Ploce wasn't a tourist town at all, but a grim industrial seaport with few dining options. We saw a few cheap looking restaurants around the ferry, but when I checked Tripadvisor one of the few options listed seemed to specialize in frog legs and eel. We decided to check Teta Olga out and drove a short distance out of town until we found the restaurant. We couldn't believe our luck when we found that not only were they open, but that eel and frog were both on the menu that day. We ordered both, along with some other dishes. The grilled frogs tasted like they had been caught that day and were served whole, not just the legs. The eel was also good, although it's a very bony dish which made it off limits for the kids. The frogs were such a big hit with everybody that we ordered an extra portion.
The owner of the restaurant was a super friendly guy, and I was able to communicate with him that I was looking for alternatives to get to Mostar. He called an English-speaking friend on his phone, who gave me a number to call for someone with a bus schedule, but no one answered at that number. Around this time I realized that we were at most a half hour from the Bosnian border and that we could always come back to Ploce if we weren't allowed to take the car in. Much to Mei Ling's relief, I agreed that our best option was just to go for it in the car. Before we left, the owner gave us a ton of delicious fresh oranges from a tree in the yard of the restaurant. Teta Olga turned out to be a very unexpected and lucky find, another of our ten best meals for the trip.
On the way to the border we passed some beautiful Croatian homes on the shore of the river as well as numerous orange fields. On the main highway, we started to pass orange stands on the side of the road that became more and more frequent, and eventually there was an enormous collection of stands with a small parking lot. It was too beautiful not to stop and take pictures, although we already had so many oranges from Teta Olga that there was no point in buying more.
Soon enough we got to the border and I dutifully handed over our passports and the blue card from our rental paperwork. The agent looked everything over, handed it all back, and just like that we were through. We had made it to the fifth country of our trip.
Once in Bosnia my navigation no longer worked but I had already loaded our route to Mostar and the road to the city was straightforward. It was clear that Bosnia was not as wealthy or developed as Croatia. The orange fields and orange stands disappeared after the border, although we occasionally saw what looked like decrepit remains of former fruit stands. We arrived in Mostar without problems, but Google Maps hadn't been able to localize either our hotel or the street address so I hunted blindly for the old town. Eventually I found the right street with a combination of the map and by asking directions, and then we arrived at our hotel.
The Hotel Villa Milas turned out to be the perfect place to spend our one night in Bosnia. The hotel had only recently opened after a long rebuilding process and every detail was immaculate. The staff was extremely hospitable, and it seemed like they were all somehow related to the family that owned the hotel. The proprietor told us the building had been nearly destroyed in the war, and that they had been gradually rebuilding the structure into a modern hotel over the last twenty years. Staying in the hotel made us feel like we were part of the whole country's rebirth from the ruins of war. Adjacent to the hotel was an abandoned building pockmarked with shrapnel holes. To some this may have appeared a shabby environment, but we appreciated the contrast between the past and the present.
Click the link below for a map showing our hotel and the old town (the site only allows one map per post).
Our host initially recommended a restaurant in the old town that served typical Bosnian food, but after we emphasized that we didn't want a tourist restaurant she recommended a modern restaurant by the river. We walked into the old town first and saw the famous Stari Most bridge illuminated by spotlights. From there it was a long walk parallel to the river Neretva until we found our destination, almost completely empty at 9 PM on a Friday night. Unsurprisingly, the food was mediocre although the view of the city lights across the river was pleasant.
The meal was so unsatisfying that by the time we got back to the old town we decided to have a second dinner at the touristy Bosnian restaurant, which was more crowded and had waiters dressed in traditional costumes. The mixed grill was a little heavy but Cleo got her favorite treat, strawberry ice cream.
The next day we walked back to the old town to do some exploration and souvenir shopping. The old town is really just one street paved with irregular round cobblestones that bounced the gondola around and infuriated the kids. The street is so choked with souvenir stores, tourist restaurants, and cheap hostels that there is minimal historic atmosphere. One exception is the beautiful Stari Most, or Old Bridge, that crosses the Neretva and joins the two halves of the pedestrian zone. The Old Bridge isn't really very old any more, having been rebuilt from scratch after it was destroyed in shelling twenty years ago. However, they did the construction with the debris that fell into the Neretva and apparently it looks just like it did before. The bridge is also famous for the entrepreneurs who collect money to dive into the river. There was only one diver there that morning and I tried to get things going with a sizable donation, but the other tightfisted tourists weren't interested in contributing and the diver virtuously returned my seed money. So unfortunately, no Stari Most diving video for the blog. The bridge was one of the best vantage points for photos in the old town.
The old town market was kind of a bust as well so we gathered our things and headed for Blagaj, a nearby town known for an old Dervish monastery built at the point where the River Buna dived underground beneath an enormous cliff. The town was very quiet except for one cafe that was blasting Bosnian hip hop, which actually sounded very good and turned out to be a popular genre when I looked it up later. I mistook the road from the town to the monastery for a pedestrian path, which meant that our walk was quite a bit longer than it needed to be. When we finally arrived at the monastery, there wasn't much to see except for the river disappearing into a small mouth at the bottom of the cliff. A pedestrian bridge took us to the other side of the river where the views were better. We grabbed a decent lunch in a fish restaurant and I sampled the local brew, which I didn't like as much as Croatian or Slovenian beers. Our table was so close to the river we could have dipped our feet in it.
From Blagaj, Google Maps indicated our most direct route back to the border meant leaving town from the opposite side to where we had entered. With some effort, I managed to locate the narrow road leading out of the town which soon ascended into tall, rolling hills south of Blagaj. We suddenly seemed very far removed from any sign of civilization and at one point we had to get out and admire the views.
Eventually the road descended into a small town and then petered out just a kilometer short of where we were supposed to meet the highway. Following Google Maps would have led us into someone's pebbled driveway. I asked a couple of locals how to get to the highway and they rolled their eyes. There was no choice but to return all the way to Blagaj. I wasn't done with my shortcut plan yet. I took an alternative route and once again ended up at a dead end twenty minutes later, this time among farms and fields. Defeated, we once again retraced our path to Blagaj and this time drove almost all the way back to Mostar before intersecting with the highway to the border.
This time around, the border wasn't as easy as it had been on the way into Bosnia. We encountered a long line of cars that moved at a glacial pace. As minutes ticked away I reevaluated our options to get to Korcula, our next destination. I had planned to drive the whole way to Orebic on the Peljesac Peninsula and then take a short ferry to Korcula, since the times of the ferry from Ploce to Trpanj on the peninsula weren't very convenient. However, as we waited at the border I realized that drive would involve two more border crossings due to the Bosnian sea corridor at Neum. I should have taken a different road and crossed into Croatia south of Neum, but our first easy border crossing had given me a false sense of security. We would have to take the late ferry from Ploce and then rush to catch the last ferry to Korcula, otherwise we'd be spending the night in Orebic instead.
We finally got past the border and arrived back at Ploce with two hours to spare before the Trpanj ferry. I bought our tickets and we settled down to eat in one of the port restaurants we had turned our nose up at the day before. The seafood was surprisingly fresh and tasty, which helped assuage our regret at missing the opportunity to have a more upscale dinner in Korcula. Eventually we got on the ferry and jumped into the car well before the ramp opened, anticipating a race across the peninsula to reach the last ferry to Korcula. Apparently I wasn't the only one thinking along those lines, because as soon as the cars were allowed to move onto the dock there was an unusually aggressive jockeying for position and a large number of cars headed in the direction of Orebic. It was a one lane winding road that hugged the hillsides, so passing wasn't an option most of the time. Fortunately, everyone seemed to be moving with a sense of urgency and I began to feel more confident we would make the Korcula ferry. I had a brief moment of panic once we were in Orebic and the signs for the ferry port suddenly disappeared, but I was able to reorient myself quickly after pulling over and studying the map. I was also worried that there might not be enough room for us on the car deck, as it seemed to be a small ferry and there were a lot of cars lined up in front of us. When the line finally started to move I watched every car going past the ticket checker, half expecting him to raise both hands in a stopping motion just as our car reached the front of the line. In the end, we made it with plenty of room to spare and we were bound for Korcula.