In June 2017 my girlfriend and I decided to take three weeks away to travel to parts of Europe we’ve always wanted to see.
This included Rome and Barcelona, but most ambitiously the Croatian coast and parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This involved renting a car and driving around 1,000 kilometres across the mountains and coastal roads and into what was unknown to us, leaving the borders of the EU and into regions not yet mapped by Google StreetView.
Day 1: Arriving in Zadar
Our first day in Croatia was uneventful – a late flight from Stansted meant we arrived after 11pm, with a quick lift to our accommodation on the outskirts of the town. The heat was immediately noticeable, a pleasant increase from British summertime to the late 20’s of central Europe.
Zadar Airport sits amongst military bases that, we were told, were used in the 1990’s as part of the Balkan war that gripped and ultimately broke up Yugoslavia. The airport terminal itself is the smallest I’ve ever seen with two gates, one in, one out and felt like the staff were switching the lights off behind us as the only flight in that night.
Our host who took us to the apartment was hospitable and the apartment was spacious and well equipped and a quiet night was had ready for the week ahead.
That morning, we took the offer of a lift back to the airport to collect our rental car – a silver Suzuki Swift. Year unknown, but well equipped, air conditioned (phew!) and to be our gateway to everywhere and anywhere we wanted to go over the coming week.
Leaving the main roads, we went over the undulating b-roads of Croatia to reach Sibenik, the gateway to Krka National Park. A lot of nerves taking the wheel of a left-hand drive car, driving on the right into the unknown but the well signed, well lit and surprisingly well maintained yet empty roads put our minds at rest and we began to take in the scenery. An incredible mix of wide open wasteland, mountain ranges, farms and the occasional hamlet stretched for miles. The villages with rows of new, sometimes luxury built houses, kept apart by the presumably war damaged rubble of their neighbours. On the same theme, almost every village contained a graveyard that we would consider disproportionately large, with the graves mostly dated from the early 90’s. A stark reminder of the recent scars this beautiful country has.
We arrived in Sibenik and parked off the main road. We walked down to the waterside and had a cheap (a theme that the Balkan countries do very well) beer (another theme that the Balkan countries do very well).
We decided, there and then, to take one of the boat tours to go and see the waterfalls. This cost us somewhere in the region of £10 each for a 30-minute trip across to the heart of the falls, including a return later in the day.
Krka is indeed an incredible place – but, even in June before the summer holidays, the number of tourists is considerable, even across such a large area. Walking around the platforms to see the various falls, the fish through the clear waters and the wildlife among the trees ranging from luminous blue dragonflies to, if you believe the signs, vipers and wildcats.
The day was capped off with ice cream before the return trip to Sibinek and another hour or two in the car to Split. This included a brief, but alarming run in with a lady shepherding through a small village and hairpin turns that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a World Rally event.
Arrival at the apartment in Split wasn’t that straightforward. Our host, Frano, had to send his brother out to find us, lost in the surprisingly large, port-side city. Once we finally made it, the apartment was spacious, and had a balcony overlooking the estuary that cuts into the city. A quick shop down the local Tommy supermarket for some pasta, cheese and beer, and we settled down for the night.
Day 3: Split
For our third day we had decided on not driving, and also to finally have a proper meal out in Croatia. We walked from the apartment down to the large, modern shopping centre for a mid-morning coffee before walking further down for a look at the football stadium of Hadjuk Split. On our way around we found a quiet, posh looking restaurant serving fresh fish before cutting into the narrow, stone walls of Split’s city centre.
On entering the old town, music and crowds were gathered leading into the square of Diocletian’s Palace, an incredible 1800 year old Roman structure and tower that sits just off the port of Split. A public display of singing and dancing was taking place to celebrate a wedding (or two), before they went into the church itself. A short video of the fanfare can be seen below.
A wedding party in the streets out the front of the Diocletian Palace in Split
Inside the church and bell tower, the views were incredible. Such a well preserved, Christian monument with exquisite markings, stained glass windows and carvings is rarely seen. The tower itself is not for the faint of heart as the series of stairs lead to the very top and a beautiful panoramic view of the city. Beware on the way down as once the metal stairs end, you are left to clamber down large stone stairs that anyone less than 6 foot will struggle to tackle. Entry to both of these monuments cost less than £10 and backlit with the acapella singing coming from the square, were one of the defining memories of the city.
The walk back was a long one as we went through the Game of Thrones-style (and I’m lead to believe, used) underground souvenir market and out to the port; stopping only to get some street food and to cast an eye over the few square meters of sand beach that has given way to party goers.
Day 4: Island hopping off the coast of Split
We started early on our fourth day for the long walk down to the port, this time to catch a boat (a more speedy one this time) to see the Blue Cave and some of the islands off of Split. Unfortunately, the weather (or more specifically, the water) didn’t allow us to visit the caves so instead we were taken across a number of the islands, with lunch and wine tasting. The boat trip itself was incredible, basking in the sun as the captains skimmed across the ocean at 100kmph. Stopping off at the road-linked island of Trogir with its incredible cathedral and old winding streets before moving on to a series of off-the-grid islands with sandy beaches and blue lagoons, lunch on top of a mountain overlooking small enclaves and towns lapped by the clear blue waters and finishing with wine tasting in an entrepreneurial underground cellar. The day was incredible, and although comparatively expensive being in the region of £100 each (food and drinks included), was another memory and series of photo opportunities that will last forever.
On the way back from the port, by this time it was around 7pm, we stopped for a drink and pizza at a restaurant amongst the boats. Sour cream cheese pizza with chicken and bacon, and no tomato or tomato puree to be seen, may not sound Mediterranean or Balkan – and you would be right – but it was a flavour I will forever associate with Split.
Day five marked what would be the most stressful part of the journey – leaving the city of Split to embark on a circa-300km drive to Dubrovnik via the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
For those who don’t know, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the first country outside of the European Union. It is also documented as being the last remaining country in Europe with considerable numbers of residual landmines from the still-recent Balkan War, has problems with stray dogs and the most resent example of a country involved, and the victim of genocide in Europe.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was, until the mid-1990’s, part of Yugoslavia. The break-up of this enormous, multi-cultured and communist country led to various conflicts that involved the death of thousands of Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, Montenegrins and Kosovans, and the independence of those countries along with Slovenia and the Former Yugoslavian Republic (FYR) of Macedonia from the larger Yugoslav state. The tensions are still apparent, most recently between Serbia and Kosovo/Albania, but what it is most apparent is the number of graveyards in a country of only 4 million people.
I cannot stress enough how, in the admittedly short time we spent there, we saw no evidence of any hostility and the people were welcoming, hospitable and left us feeling no sense of fear of what might happen, or that we might say the wrong thing.
A few things that should be documented for anyone planning to go … firstly, as Bosnia and Herzegovina sits outside the European Union the EHIC (health card) doesn’t cover, so travel and health insurance is a must. Furthermore, mobile phone providers seem to exclude the country from even the ‘extended’ zones of Europe. My phone provider, o2, charged £6 per MB of data, whilst my girlfriend’s phone on EE was unable to make an outgoing call at all whilst in the country.
The country is incredibly cheap, and for the most part accepts the Euro (at a fixed exchange rate of 1:2 to their own currency). However, don’t assume you will be able to pay by credit or debit card, and if you need to withdraw money you will withdraw it in Bosnian Marks, which is essentially a German Deutschmark. In the UK, and as I understand it for the rest of the world as well, you cannot get their currency either to exchange or to return, they are only obtainable in the country. For that reason alone, they do make a lovely souvenir, but is worth remembering when you’re at a cash machine!
Speaking of souvenirs, whilst the stalls mostly sold what you would expect in the ways of magnets, snowglobes (in a city that hovered around 38 degrees that week) and flags – a large number focused on the art scene that the city indulges in, with handmade silk scarves, paintings and glasswork abundant. More unusually, was the stall selling Yugoslavian war medals, original postcodes from the communist state and, more incredibly, a tommy gun.
Stari Most, the bridge in the centre of Mostar, is an icon of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and perhaps equally so for the Balkan War. An Ottoman bridge from the 1600’s, destroyed by Croat forces in 1993, was rebuild to the original plans and using original techniques in the early 2000’s. The video of the reconstruction of the bridge can be seen in the city’s museum (entry fee around £2) whilst various original clips of its destruction can be found on YouTube. We took the walk over the bridge, looking out over the blue river and the new bridge on the other side of town, before heading up to the museum for an insight into its history (both distant and recent) and for some incredible panoramic views of our surroundings.
We ate at a hotel restaurant with a small waterfall, and had some traditional “Bosnian meat” and coffee. A wonderful experience and a wonderful looking hotel – as well as showing us the traditional way of drinking Bosnian coffee (dunking a sugar cube in a Turkish style cezve) our waiter explained how, despite its appearance as being historic and almost natural to the rest of the city, it like so many other buildings had been completely rebuilt following the war. Whilst there is a lot of evidence of old buildings cordoned off and riddled with bullet holes, it’s incredible to think that this beautiful country was involved in such a destructive conflict within the last three decades.
See the full photo gallery from Mostar by clicking here!
On our way out we stopped at Blagaj, a small town on the way back down towards the Croatian border. A beautiful, quiet and secluded town with a small waterfall and cave (with a £2 boat trip, for a little insight).
Our drive out back towards Croatia saw more incredible mountains, rivers and animals! Stray dogs on the roads, generations down from those who had been separated from their owners during the conflicts, another reminder that victims of the wars stretched far beyond what you might expect. Wild tortoises crossing the roads were also a first in my driving experience, but no sightings of any alleged bears that are said to be in the region.
We crossed the border, a surprisingly quick process both in and out of the country, and found ourselves lost in the Jewel of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik. Another wonderful apartment – close to the old town, but at the expense of some amenities such as a full kitchen.
Day 6: Dubrovnik (City walls and Lapad)
Our first day in Dubrovnik, we walked down to the old town – stopping for a coffee along the way. Walking across the bridge and inside the fortified walls was like walking through the set of Game of Thrones – because it is.
We decided straight off, to pay £15 each to walk around the walls of the city, a must-do experience for anyone visiting. That’s not to say it wasn’t exhausting, and the clear sky and 30 degree heat made the beer we had in one of Dubrovnik’s restaurants all the better once we were back down.
The rest of the day we spent around the walls of the city, before going over and up to the fortress, Lovrijeenac, by the waters edge, for further incredible views over the ocean and of the city. Afterwards we walked down to the other end of Dubrovnik and the beach of Lapad, which appears to be under construction. Sitting in the Cave Bar More restaurant, we had an incredible five star meal as the sun set over the water.
Day 7: Dubrovnik (War museum)
Our second day in Dubrovnik had originally intended to be a drive down to Kotor, the bay of Montenegro. But the distance there, the distance already travelled and the fact we only had 24-hours before our drive back lead us to decide to take a second day in Dubrovnik and mop up the bits we had missed in the first day. We had read before coming that Dubrovnik can be done in a day – and whilst you can see the main landmarks, it’s certainly not true to fully appreciate everything there is to offer.
We stopped off again in the morning, this time for some breakfast which we shared with a friendly gecko – one of many that hides in the foliage of the country. We again set about picking our way around the city, finding the famous Spanish Steps and looking around some of the beautiful churches and buildings that are almost lost in the astounding architecture that dominates the town.
We then took the cable car up to the top of the mountain, Srd, that overlooks the city for some incredible views both over the town, and out towards the mountains and the Bosnian and Montenegrin borders.
A more humbling experience took us next as on top of Srd is the Napoleonic Imperial Fortress which was used a vantage point for the armies battling for control of Dubrovnik in the early 1990’s. It is now the museum for the Yugoslavia conflict and the battle for Dubrovnik, and gives a humbling insight into the scale of the conflict. It’s incredible to see Dubrovnik as it is now, a thriving tourist hotspot that 25 years ago was under siege from those wishing to either take it, or destroy it.
We chose to take the walk down from the fortress rather than take the cable car and whilst it offered incredible views, it was more arduous and uncomfortable than either us had anticipated. Greeted by a wild viper at the bottom, we rewarded our efforts with tea and a drink at the Bosnian restaurant next door to the apartment, ‘Taj Mahal‘.
Our day leaving Dubrovnik was dedicated to travelling back to Zadar – a solid 6-hour trip, with a break for lunch, and another 350 kilometres on the car. Although the journey was arduous, an unseasonable and surprisingly heavy downpour dominated the majority of the day and justified our decision to be in the car and do it one go. The journey was met with spectacular views and another brief cut through the quirk of the Bosnian border at Neum. We arrived back at Zadar, in the same apartment we began our adventure to have some lunch and an early night before our final day and flight home.
Dash-cam footage of driving around Croatia
We left the apartment with the car loaded up and took it down to a multi-story car park on the edge of Zadar and went for a walk around the town. We may not have had enough time to fully do the town justice, but a walk around the beautiful, narrow and winding city streets before visiting the world-famous sea organ more than justified our day.
We drove back to the airport via a car wash and petrol station to return the car and await out flight back to the UK.
A map of our route around Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina
It’s incredible to see on the map above just how little of both countries we saw, and yet just how much we experienced. There wasn’t a moment of stress in our time there, and despite the complications and possible pitfalls of arranging each element of our journey ourselves, they all fell together beautifully. Everybody we met was courteous and helpful, food and drink was delicious and affordable and we had allowed enough time to enjoy it all.
As mentioned above, there are a few quirks to consider on this kind of journey. The Bosnian border creeping out to sea means that regardless of had we visited Mostar and Blagaj, we would have had to cross into Bosnia briefly and therefore pay the additional cost to the rental company for the green card. Also, whilst it doesn’t pose a problem with some preparation, the switches in currency could potentially have been an issue – Euro seems accepted across almost all of the areas we visited, and most accepted MasterCard but each bank will put its own premium on top of that. Croatian Kuna can be exchanged in the UK, but Bosnian Marks can’t. Furthermore, while mobile phones in Croatia are fine, as part of the European Union, Bosnia suddenly becomes extortionate (around £7 per MB of data – which would mean uploading the picture of the bridge above would cost £18 in itself). We didn’t find a solution to this other than simply not using the phones, but had we been staying for a few days this could have been a problem.
I simply cannot recommend Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina enough as a place to travel – whether you were to do a cruise down the Adriatic coast, drive as we did or simply fly into any of the beautiful cities that litters this part of the world, I don’t doubt that you would have an amazing time.
by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan