Happy New Year!
New Year’s Day in Dubrovnik. SB and I saw in the New Year in the town centre of Dubrovnik where there was live music, fireworks, and crowds of people singing raucously and waltzing joyously. The walls and major monuments of the old town were draped with festoon lighting, which we weren’t too wild about, but in fact it looked fabulous when it was all lit up last night. The place we are staying is just off the Stradun (main street of Dubrovnik Old Town) so we were prepared for not much sleep due to high volumes. But in fact it was fine. The fact that we drank a bottle of Armenian cognac to see in the New Year probably helped matters.
Yesterday was a great day. We hired a car – a snazzy little Opel. I did all the driving due to SB leaving driver’s license in the UK. To a soundtrack provided by Croatian radio (ABBA, Michael Jackson, John Paul Young – all our favourites and more) we headed out of town to the border with Bosnia-Hercegovina. We only drove around the city centre twice as we tried to find the exit to the main highway – I thought that was a pretty good effort.
Views from the highway are simply spectacular. Boy oh boy oh boy. So beautiful. Not that I could really look, it was one of those roads that you need to keep your eyes on at all times. But SB told me it was spectacular.
We went first to Trebinje, not a place with particularly happy memories for the friends I know who come from there. But I wanted to see where they had grown up, so we went. It isn’t far from Dubrovnik. The road is good, and the landscape is stark – very rocky – a karst landscape – with no trees, and constant hills, with snow-capped mountains in the distance. It felt like the middle of nowhere and we mused as to what we would do if we had needed assistance while on this road. Waited for passing traffic, I guess.
Trebinje is in the Republic of Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity within Bosnia-Hercegovina. It feels like a pretty, jolly little European town. It is incongrous to feel this and consider it alongside recent history. Everyone seemed to be out and about, enjoying the fine weather and the public holiday. We stopped for a coffee and yummy zeljanica (spinach pide) at a cafe in the main square, then wandered through the Old Town – helpfully signposted. Lucky it was – it wasn’t so particularly striking so could have easily been missed.
People in Dubrovnik were surprised we wanted to go to Trebinje, and questioned it. Some shuddered or shook their heads. When Dubrovnik was attacked and shelled during the war in 1991, their attackers approached the city from Trebinje and Montenegro. The border was only reopened a year or two ago. Emotions are still very raw about this place.
We stayed there about an hour. We were surprised (especially after the level of observation I experienced as a visible stranger in Mostar and Sarajevo) that no-one seemed to pay us, the visitors, any particular attention. “I have to say, I feel a bit insulted,” said SB, in injured tones, as we realised we were not to be the centre of interest here. We certainly appeared to be ‘the only tourists in the village’.
We were excited to find the Museum of Hercegovina (housed in an old castle), feeling that a visit to such a place would mean we were being proper tourists. No such luck though, although the doors were open the woman inside shook her head, shrugged, and said they had closed 15 minutes earlier. We would have to come back on January 2nd.
We meandered our way back to the car. SB checked it for signs of vandalism (I was a bit paranoid about how a car with Croatian number plates might be received in Trebinje, but so far, so good. No damage, no interest. I was perhaps being overly melodramatic. Old habits die hard though – nine years ago a lot of attention was paid to this kind of thing.)
We then followed the Cyrillic signs to Herceg Novi, a town just over the border in Montenegro. The car hire people had warned us that this wasn’t a great road, and they were right. It looks like they are in the process of building a new road, which means that the current road is in a pretty dodgy state, often unsurfaced and potholed. The scenery continued to be spectacular, more rocky mountains, no trees, cows and donkeys on a couple of occasions wandering across the road or pausing at the roadside. The roads were also steep, both up and down.
We got to the border, showed the passports, a surly, smart-arse border guard criticised my efforts at speaking his language (everyone else has always been delighted to speak with me, and made effort to speak slowly for me – and anyway, the problem on this occasion was that when he asked me a question about things to declared, the car radio was on and I couldn’t hear what he said. Oh the indignation I felt!) and asked us to open the boot.
We made our way to Kotor, which is at the furthest-inland point of a kind of great fjord. The way there is winding and kind of narrow, but very beautiful. But long too, and time was ticking on. We ended up getting to Kotor at 3pm. We wandered through the Old Town – very pretty, but kind of dead…. where was everyone? Kotor town is long and narrow, with a waterline along one side, a very steep mountains flaking the other. And built upon, and up, this steep cliff, is a very striking forteress. SB and I decided to climb this. Great climb. We sang as we climbed… admired the views… stopped about three quarters of the way up as we realised the sun would soon set and the path was a little too tricky to be tackled in low light. Descended, found a nice restaurant in which to eat a late lunch, and chatted with the owner about the way lots of the houses in the area are being bought up by English and Irish people. He was quite amused by this. He also told us about the car ferry that we would be able to take back, departing from a small port about 12km out of Kotor. This would allow us to skip a large part of the journey we had already taken along the fjord to get to Kotor, and drop us at the shore on the other side about 20 or 30 km out of Herceg Novi.
To get to this port though we had to drive in the dark along a narrow, narrow road, with a drop into the water on one side of it. For large parts of the road there are no safety barriers on the edge – just the water. It was incredibly stressful. Cars kept coming in the other direction… I couldn’t really see… I was driving on the other side of the road so had less of a sense of how wide the car was… or how close to the side we were… in a manual car… they were a very long 12km. But a great sense of relief washed over me when the port came into sight.
The rest of the drive was easy. We got back into Dubrovnik around 7.30pm, returned the car, went back to the lodgings for a bit of a snooze, then hit the streets in time for the fireworks.
And no fines! Like I said, no attention was really paid to us at all. I think I had just heard some dodgy rumours. The driving was good, apart from that one scary, narrow, waterside road.
Tonight we hope to be able to go to Italy, departing at 11pm on the overnight ferry. All the shops and information services are closed today, but according to the Jadrolinija website, a boat will leave for Bari tonight – Tuesday. Hope it is running despite the public holiday. We are ready to move on to la bella Italia. It is freezing in Dubrovnik today – the first really cold day. Holing up in an internet cafe (possibly the most expensive I have ever been to in my life, incidentally) seems the best way to kill time. Maybe we can find a cinema or something too.