Before 1991, I had barely heard of Croatia and Bosnia. Torn apart by war from 1991 to 1995, the countries came into the American consciousness in an abrupt manner — yet another tragic story that seemed so far removed from life here. After the war ended, those countries just drifted away for a couple of decades, left to rebuild their severely damaged cities.
My husband, Rob Merritt, and I started hearing about Croatia several years ago — first during a snorkeling trip in Aruba where one of our companions extolled the virtues of the country. Then it was a Rick Steves — travel-guide extraordinaire — whose stunning Croatian travel video on PBS rekindled our curiosity. Suddenly, we began meeting Croatians in Aspen, including some neighbors. Thus, the commencement of our amazing journey last May.
We flew on an inexpensive direct flight from London to Dubrovnik on the southern tip of Croatia’s famed Dalmatian coast. Our walk from our Hotel Lapad (a contemporary four-star — $160/night) to the famed, walled city took us along a gorgeous promenade overlooking the greenest sea you’ve ever seen. The rich color is made more striking by the craggy limestone rocks running along the edge of the water. We passed many ancient stone buildings, many with bullet holes, not renovated.
Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, although in May, it was still on the Kuna — 0.1726 to US $1.
The vibrant, thriving walled city was built more than 1,100 years ago. It’s an incredibly stunning, living museum. Walking over the gigantic former drawbridge, one is greeted by a 25 meter high facade of stone, rising from the paved bricks to tower over monasteries, palaces, little shops, sidewalk cafes, wine bars and charming homes. Long, narrow pedestrian streets connect this grid, built around the principles of the Dubrovnik Statutes of 1239. The city itself is an architectural wonder — a thrilling mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Croatians always have been a peaceful people, known for their negotiation skills and fierce independence. (Dubrovnik was the only city that Napoleon could not conquer.)
A large cistern built in the 900s remains their primary water supply. It’s filled by a spring 27 miles away and delivered via an aqueducts. Their sewer system, nearly as ancient, remains in use as well.
Evenings come alive with music — from an accomplished jazz trio to the Dubrovnik Symphony performing in the exquisite, open-roofed Rector’s Palace Museum against a backdrop of Roman columns and arches.
The food was delicious — fresh fish baked in garlic and olive oil, deboned and filleted at your table and served with fresh, organic vegetables.
A self-guided tour atop the wall provided us with a bird’s eye view of the city’s 484 buildings — 70 percent had sustained rooftop war damage. The walled city became a refuge for 20,000 people as well as those fleeing the Bosnian countryside. Everywhere are reminders not to forget the tragedy. Many museums honor the “Defenders of Freedom.”
A side trip by boat to the small, art-packed resort village of Cavtat exposed us to more tasty, local and fresh catches — the black cuttlefish and oyster soup. On our walk around the peninsula, we also discovered a barely-unearthed Roman archaeological site from the First century.
Throughout Croatia, we heard mostly British accents. Croatia is England’s No. 1 tourism destination, but we also heard many Eastern European accents. We didn’t see any Americans for an entire week, when we left for Venice. The Croats are still getting their outgoing “hospitality legs” — they have a formal and professional persona until you make an inquiry. That’s when they reveal their friendly and helpful nature.
We took Rick Steves’ advice to venture inland to Mostar, Bosnia, because “you’ll never forget it,” he said. He was right. We took the more remote, scenic route from Dubrovnik through the Republika Srpska, part of Herzegovnia, controlled by the country’s Serb minority, rather than its Bosniak and Croat majority.
We saw Orthodox churches and monasteries, little chapels with slate roofs and well-manicured cemeteries, bombed-out buildings and dozens of small roadside war memorials. The Cyrillic alphabet was present on all signs, compelling us to make multiple trips around roundabouts to figure out where we were supposed to go. We stopped in Stolac to see a necropolis with dozens of giant tombstones from the 13th to 15th centuries, engraved with evocative reliefs.
Mostar, just south of Sarajevo, is where “East meets West.” Before 1991, its residents enjoyed an idyllic mingling of cultures — Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Jews. The Old Bridge symbolized the connection between the cultures.
But as war raged the town, eventually the Old Bridge was destroyed. A determined people rebuilt this miracle of architecture and reopened it in 2005. The city’s multiple cultures are learning how to live together once again.
Mostar is still rebuilding, with bullet holes and bombed-out buildings as an ugly reminder of the past. However, the spirit of these people is inspirational. Our host at the charming Villa Fortuna bed and breakfast, Mostar native Nella and her family were forced to flee Mostar. When they returned, their home and business were totally destroyed. But they rebuilt, as required, exactly as their structures were before the war. Almost everything in Mostar was destroyed, but 90 percent has been rebuilt now.
Our Muslim guide, Selmir, was just 11 when his family had to escape their home on the front lines and take refuge in a Serbia apartment left vacant after Serbians were warned that Mostar was about to be shelled. Because his father was at war, Selmir sought food and firewood every night for his family, with no gloves or jackets to keep him warm.
But these people hold no grudges. “Are you bitter?” we asked. Our host, Nella replied, “We are all the same,” she says of her Serb and Croatian neighbors. “We speak the same language. We have to get along, and we all laugh and smile.”
The view from our room was a reminder of the connection between religions as church steeples competed with minarets. We were awakened the first night to a beautiful and inviting tenor voice — which we finally realized was the call to prayer. The city has an authentic Turkish bazaar along a cobblestone street.
We left Mostar to drive back to Croatia, enjoying its beautiful, new highway alongside lush wineries and through dozens of wide, long tunnels. Our destination was the charming fishing village of Rovinj on the Istrian Peninsula, near the amazing amphitheater in Pula, Croatia. Built in the 47 B.C. and finished in 60 B.C., it remains one of six such well-preserved icons in the world.
It was an amazing week of enchantment and discovery.