Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Wild Wild East.

Every once in a while, adventure sets itself up on your doorstep. Lately in my life at least, it seems to be the car. In Dubrovnik, having a car is the best way to explore the surrounding area. If you were to imagine Croatia as the shape of an arm. An arm bent at a 110 degree angle. If you were to picture this arm, you could imagine Dubrovnik to be the pinky finger. Located way at the southern end it is at the end of the arm, which seems like a relatively unexciting place, aside from the fact that it puts it geographically out there, close to montenegro, bosnia and the serb republic of bosnia. Serb republic of Bosnia? Isn't that an oxymoron? Well I didn't know this, but just over the backside of the Dalmatian coastline lines the serbian part of Bosnia, a portion that unless you have been through the muslim part, doesn't seem all that unusual, until you realize you can't read the cyrillic road signs.

Which brings me to our adventure. Jon's friend Coop has arrived into town. After being the leader of a busabout tour group last year that had one of the guests get seriously injured he had left Croatia last summer and hadn't returned since the accident. Thankfully one year later, the woman who fell, Coop, and the people who helped with the rescue all had a reunion dinner in celebration of her full recovery. Afterwards Coop was definitely up for some adventure and we managed to rent a car.

With the coastline as our oyster, we decided to leave it behind and head for the bosnian foothills in search of spit roasted lamb. What we would find was a whole new adventure altogether. Initially our goal was to head to Trebinje, a small city located about thirty minutes from the Croatian border. But as we drove into town, we realized that we couldn't read the roadsigns which were all written in cyrillic. As we drove through Trebinje, we had to ask for directions a few times and then still managed to get lost on the highway out of town. The restaurants everyone has recommended were nowhere to be see so following our nose for the scent of adventure, we drove on. Past Mosko and then on through to Bilecko Lake. As we realized we were severely lost, we decided to continue on to the next town. Having seen the lake and realizing the day was only about to get hotter, consoled ourself to a swim after lunch, but also the fact that we would need to acquire Coop a set of cheap bosnian swim trunks along the way. Then we entered "Bilecka".

To call Bilecka "a hole" would be offensive to a hole. Ok I lie. But Bilecka did feel like it was the movie set for "Borat". As we rolled through town, we got nothing but strange looks from the locals as they must have been thinking "Man, these guys are LOST!". Ironically despite all the cyrillic signage, Jon managed to spot a men and womens clothing shop. We pulld over and checked it out. After a few minutes of browsing and the guided attention of a very helpful shop keeper, we persuaded Coop to buy a pair of black, white and pink swimming shorts. Three sizes too big, ugly as sin and only 5 Konvertible Marks (KM's).

After the fantastic swim trunks transaction, Jon mentioned to the shop keeper we were in need of food. A very confusing five minutes, three phone calls and a conversation lost in translation, a car pulls up out front of the shop and the guy inside says" get in, I'll take you to a restaurant!". Jon was brave enough to jump in while we followed in the rental car. To our jaded north american/european perspectives we were surprised how accommodating the restaurant owner was! He had literally driven out to get us and led us to his restaurant called "Stari Dom" where we managed to have a fantastic meal in typical balkan style... a large plate of meat and potatoes!

Stuffed to the brim and ready for a swim, we jumped back in the car and headed back towards the lake. On the way we got distracted by an abandoned bosnian airfield and a devastated museum for an old necropolis. The necropolis building had been the victim of a large shell that pierced the room... leaving the inside completely burned out. Very spooky especially when you account for all the random villagers wandering about and the musty smell of goat feces from local livestock. At one point this museum must have been a fantastic and beautiful place with an amazing view of the lake. Now all that was left was a burned out concrete shell.

After the necropolis we once again got distracted by a random road that led up a hillside and took us to an ancient abandoned fort. The history, ownership and status of the fort was a mystery to us. All we knew was that in Bosnia, you make your own rules as you go. So we decided to explore the ruin which made for a fantastic photo shoot.

Anyways after a long day of driving, exploring and eating delicious grilled meat, we wandered back into Trebinje for a quick $1.40 ice cream sundae, then drove the incredibly long dark road back to Dubrovnik. Without an electrical light in sight, the winding rocky roads of Bosnia are not for the faint of heart. Driving the high beams on is the only way to really see anything further than 100 meters. We hit up the Crotian border guards in Gorni Brgat and then we were back on croatian soil. Thankfully there were only a few cars but it seems lately the Crocops are out to search every single car entering the country... so lineups can be upwards of 3 hours. Thankfully for us, it was seamless and we were back in our own beds 30 minutes later!

All in all, I have a new appreciation for Bosnia. I am keen to show Miles some of the culture and food in the upcoming weeks and hope that he will join it just as much as I have.

Meat... with a side order of meat.

So my weekends usually consist of working. I get the evening shift on a saturday and the morning shift on a sunday, so I work back to back in a hope to get it all over and done with so I can get on with my week. So last sunday after work, Ben and Sarah decided to rent a car and go explore the coast, choosing me as their trusty local guide.

We jumped into our rented Opel "Corsa" and got onto the highway headed south towards the airport. If there's one thing that I know Ben and Sarah are good for, it's the fact that they are both totall open minded and up for whatever adventures may come our way. Seeing as I was driving, it was my duty to carefully maneuver our rental car through the narrow highways backroads and mountain passes so we could explore the southern coast a little further.

We drove down towards the Montenegro border, without a real destination in mind. In the past I had been to a small tiny restaurant up in the dubrovnik hillside that specialized in locally grown and harvested food. The menu at this place was simple, but the food was the freshest and most delicious you could find. The only problem I had was that I couldn't remember how to get up to it. There is a selection of local roads that lead into the mountains, each one leading to a different village. I just couldn't remember which village had this restaurant.

So with a bit of luck, we managed to find ourselves lost. Not completely, but certainly unsure of which road to take. We picked one and just followed the switchbacks up, up and up. The view from the top was stunning as we got a great shot of the Konavle Valley, with it's many farms and the airport below us.

We found a road, that seemed to go off into the middle of nowhere, but we did manage to find a sign that pointed further along that said "Konoba Konavle". "Konoba" means small restaurant in Croatian. Anyways we drove down this road, seemingly heading out further and further from the coast. At one point the sign indicated for us to follow a single lane road further into the rocky hillside. Winding through the countryside the road seemed to turn into an ancient that wound it's way further south. Later I would find out that this road is actually an ancient roman road that leads all the way to Istanbul.

Finally we arrived at a small restaurant looking building, perched alongside this ancient road. Modern, clean looking, it was almost out of place next to the rugged and rocky hills. Greeted by an old man who spoke very good English, we sat down and ordered two portions of "Cold platter" to share amongst the three of us. Turns out this was not the restaurant I had been to previously but was actually an even more reasonably priced one slightly further out of the way.

We ate an amazing platter of home made prosciutto, with home made bread, onions, pickles, preserves and four kinds of locally made cheeses. It was a little slice of heaven, but as we were eating, the man came back and asked if we wanted anything from the grill. Mistake number one. Of course we wanted grilled meat! Same deal, two portions for three people. How big could two portions really be?

After finishing our cold platter, we realized we were actually totally satisfied... we really didn't need to order anything more. Then it came. The biggest platter of meat, fried potatoes, grilled veg and a side serving of onions and ajvar (a homemade croatian pepper sauce) you had seen this side of Neum.

P.S. those fries are actually larger than you think.

At this point we realized our eyes were bigger than out appetite. It was time to go big or go home... and we weren't about to head home. Over the next hour and a half, we put in a solid effort at demolishing our animal based platter. Ten pieces of cevapi, two veal skewers, one massive piece of pork, two amazingly cooked rumpsteaks, two chicken breasts, grilled eggplants, peppers and zucchini, surrounded by a mountain of fried potatoes. Not to mention the massive fresh tomato salad and refilled basket of home made grilled bread.

We put in a solid effort, but alas we were all on the verge of exploding and looking like this guy. Ironically by the time all was said and done, we were full, watered and trying to deal with our meat coma. When the bill arrived we were surprised to see it was only $70. Three people, amazing local cuisine and copious amounts of it, it was really a steal of a deal. Nothing like locally grown produce and meats to quench an adventurous appetite.

We decided to check out the walking paths along the old roman road, which led to some abandoned bunkers from the 90's conflict. We watched the sun go down and decided to go do some more exploring in the rental car while we still had the chance.

As we made our way back down the switchback roads in the darkness of night, we decided to take a detour, further into the middle of nowhere and continued on for 9kms until we hit the little town of Predvorije. Now we had no idea what to expect, aside form the fact we knew we were VERY far off the beaten dubrovnik tourist path. As we drove into the town, we realized that there was something going on as the town was full of traffic. Turns out we walked right into a court soccer tournament that was going on between neighbouring villages. We hopped out and decided to grab a seat and check out the action. Needless to say, practically the whole courtyard stopped at stared at us. They must have thought "Two aussies and a canadian in Predvorije? Are they lost?". We grabbed a seat, grabbed a beverage and watched the teams from the villages of "Slano" and "Zupa" battle it out for a spot in the finals. It was quite the match as the action seems much quicker thanks to a smaller than average court. We chatted with some locals as I practiced my croatian as they tried their english on me. I talked to "Pero" a small boy who lived in Predvorije. It was great hanging with locals and seeing an event like a court soccer tournament. Everyone was out and about, and what I'm sure is normally a fairly quiet town had turned into an exciting place to see!

As we made our way back to Dubrovnik to return the car, high on the endorphins released by our high meat consumption and the fact we had really experienced a local perspective of the real dalmatian lifestyle. All in all, an amazing way to end my work weekend!

Props go out to Benji and Sarah for renting the car.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


So over the last few weeks, I have finally started to wrap my head around the fact that everything I hoped would happen is coming true.

A few months ago I had a very hard time visualizing the fact that I would once again be in Dubrovnik. The smell of the sewer as you enter the city through the Pile gate, the feeling of smooth marble street stones under your feet as you explore the city, the taste of a nice hot "white coffee" from many of the local cafes. When I finally did manage to enter the old city, it had literally felt like I had never left.

One of the dilemma that I faced when I left was what I was leaving behind. Amazing friends, relationships and a city that really does have a special energy of it's own. It was very easy to share my enthusiasm with friends and family, but the open invite to come join wasn't always received as eagerly as I thought. The majority of people I know are relatively settled in their lifestyles. The opportunity to leave everything behind and travel isn't something that is possible with many of their lifestyles. It's also hard to convey the feeling of experiencing another culture with fellow travelers, smelling the fresh air of a new destination or rolling with the punches that come when something doesn't quite go according to plan. Explaining this type of thing to people is difficult, especially when it comes to the topic of having faith in the world and the fact that in the end, everything will turn out alright.

In the end, I had to give it all up and book a ticket to Frankfurt and leave it behind.

There's a motto I've heard that rings very true to form when you look back on your actions of the past. "When you do what you love, the rest will come." I can't say that that saying could ring any truer than on this trip. Once I arrived in Dubrovnik, everything else has been like one magic carpet ride. With the advent of smart phones and wireless internet, I can stay in contact with my friends and family at the touch of a button, with no cost associated. Friends I had met years ago had randomly planned to also be in Europe during the same time and have come to visit, leaving the feeling that nothing really has changed in the three years I was away. It also seems taking photos of exotic places and posting them on blogs is a great way to inspire people to come and visit and experience the culture for themselves! The month of August looks absolutely insane with a solid train of friends, family and couch surfers coming to visit Dubrovnik. When you document what you're doing, it doesn't seem to take much else to inspire people to come out and join in on the fun!

So the moral of the story is to "Lead by Example". When you follow your heart, it will always lead you in the right direction and inspire others to join in on the good times.