Miodrag, the driver we met at Dubrovnik Airport two days earlier, arrives promptly at 10am to pick us up. For the off-peak price of 150 Euros, the short, stocky, dark haired former judo wrestler is our personal guide/chauffeur for the day, to take us across the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As we cruise the sparkling Croatian coastline in the back of Miodrag’s taxi, he speaks to us via the rear view mirror, his eyes magnified behind his thick glasses. He recalls his days as a professional judo wrestler from the state of Montenegro, selected at national level to represent “the former Yugoslavia”. He was lucky enough to settle in Germany and escape the horror of the region’s civil war that took place over much of the 1990s, returning to Croatia to become a judo trainer and part time taxi driver, offering special tours to open up rebuilt wartorn areas to curious tourists.
Before long we arrive at the walled village of Pocitelj, which dates back to Turkish occupation, with parts of it believed to be dated back to the 4th Century. Miodrag turns around and says we can stretch our legs at this UNESCO heritage site before continuing onto Mostar and beyond. He invites us to take our time to explore the winding stone staircases, which cross over into various residences of the handful of locals that call the village home. We are met by gypsies that have set up shop at the village’s entrance, selling paper cones filled with fruit and flowers for one Euro.
Like children we race up the uneven steps, dodging the locals who ignore us as they make their way to the famous mosque, whose blue dome towers above the village’s grey walls. The mosque, and other parts of the village, was destroyed in 1993 by the Croatians – who live less than an hour away – as part of their mission to cleanse the area of Muslims. But the untrained lens of my Nikon happy snapper doesn’t know this, and nor will many of the visitors that come this way.
On the way to Mostar, more remnants of the war emerge, ever so subtly. Skeletons of stone houses, with perhaps just one or two walls remaining, are dotted along the highway. By their sides stand brand new houses; the bombed remains left alone, perhaps on purpose.
We’re quiet as we take it all in, all the way into Mostar, where signs warn people not to park under ruined buildings in case they are unstable still. The signs go largely unheeded as parking space is just as valuable here as any other city.
Set against soft green hills and the cool blue of the Neretva River, Mostar, the largest city in Herzegovina, buzzes quietly. Stepping down the cobbled streets of its bazaar-like city centre is like a step back in time or into an old folk tale, with strolling visitors nosing into market stalls nestled underneath colourful stone houses.
Arching over the Neretva, Mostar’s bridge that slices the city in two is instantly recognisable. With the original bridge standing since 1566, it was bombed by the Croats in November 1993 during the Yugoslavian conflict. After the war, the bridge was rebuilt, begun with salvaged rubble that had fallen to the bottom of the river.
Rather than dividing the city, Mostar’s bridge is now seen to connect it, although the local Bosnians and Croats still lay claim to separate parts. You can tell which side you are on based on whether they will serve you pivo (beer).
But the lack of pivo is soon forgotten as we breathe the crisp spring air that breezes across the river, as we look down on its frothy edges. We settle at a streetside eatery, where only one thing is on the menu for lunch – fried sausage and onion in pitta bread, washed back with pulpy, bitter home made lemonade, a local specialty Miodrag previously recommended. It comes in small and large, although there isn’t much difference between the two.
A crowd begins to gather on the bridge so we amble over to see what’s happening. A young man in a wetsuit is collecting money from onlookers before performing his trick – diving off the bridge into the river. He douses himself with a water bottle as a warm up before the big plunge, accompanied by a series of camera flashes ensuring spectators get their money’s worth.
Miodrag takes us into the hills for Medugorje, which literally means “in between the hills”. “I am not a believer, and others can believe what they want,” he says, as we wind through the lonely roads. “But there was nothing in this town before the so-called visions.”
He is referring to the alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary, which were reported by six children in the 1980s. Although not endorsed by the Catholic Church itself, the childrens’ reports of seeing the Virgin Mary turned the usually sleepy village into a yearly pilgrimage for Catholics around the world. The dozens of outside pews of the modern, untypically European church are empty now, but come June each year, overflow with worshippers. We deduce that a large hunk of these must be Irish because of the amount of Irish-themed eateries that line the main street of the town.
The gift stores featuring religious memorabilia such as images and statuettes of the Virgin Mary labelled “Medugorje” as if it were a brand name, as well as stand after stand displaying cheap and colourful rosary beads, also seem to be largely for the benefit of tourists. Whether the Virgin Mary really stopped in or not, the town has an economy fuelled by the pilgrims that it might never have had otherwise.
Back across the border into Croatia (which we cross twice because of the geography of the area), and there’s time for one last pit stop, at the village of Ston, which boasts a 5km ‘Great Wall’ of its own.
Miodrag takes us to his favourite restaurant, the Captain’s House, which overlooks the bay. We feast on local specialties – seafood risotto made with squid ink, Posip Cara wine and a sweet pastry made with layers of pasta.
Our host has certainly earned his keep, because we are stuffed. Not just with food, but with new visions, knowledge, memories and a sense of having been transported to another place and time.
We flew Easyjet from London to Dubrovnik.