Sarajevo Roses, Croatian Squeegees, and the Worst Meal Yet


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Enlarge photo

Enlarge photo

I was actually looking forward to the all-day drive that would cover almost the entire length of Croatia. We left Mostar at lunchtime. On the way out of town, we stopped at a tiny grocery store, where a woman I had befriended the day before — a gorgeous person, sad to be living in a frustrating economy, and stiff with a piece of shrapnel in her back that doctors decided was safer left in — made us hearty ham sandwiches. As she sliced, I gathered the rest of what was a fine picnic meal on wheels.

Leaving town, we drove over patched blast holes in the pavement. In Sarajevo, they’ve filled these scars with red concrete as memorials: “Sarajevo roses.” Here they were black like the rest of the street — but knowing what they were, they showed up red in my mind.

My two-month trip was winding up. I’d be flying home in six days, and was now at the point where you start to budget your clothes — how long you’ll need to wear each remaining pair of clean socks to get home without doing laundry. Cameron and I compared packing philosophies. (Five socks and three underpants gets me about 10 days between trips to the laundry.)

It was hot…a bathing suit kind of drive. (I don’t travel with shorts, but resort to my swim trunks if it’s too hot for pants.) With bare feet on the dashboard, I can never relax…I’m always worried about being broke in two if the airbag is set off.

When we stop at the fortified village of Pocitelj, it seems the entire population is employed selling newspaper cones of dried apricots, walnuts, and cherries. Three little girls sit under an arch playing cards. I take a photo, and one grumbles at me, “One euro!” I make her smile. She’s having a bad day…mom thinks making her wear the traditional head covering of Muslim women in this town is good for sales.

First we follow the twisty coastal road north past appealing harbor towns and a chorus line of scrub-brush mountains plunging into the sea. Near Split, we board the perfectly new expressway and pick up speed. Every on-ramp, every sign, every light, every USA-style rest stop is shiny new.

On the expressway — where people spend $8 a gallon for gas and enjoy Western-style snacks in mini-markets — you see there’s a no-nonsense affluence to the former Yugoslavia that’s a long way from its humble but colorful past. It’s a land where dads with new cars teach their children to help squeegee the windows. Next week the Rolling Stones are playing in Montenegro, and all 60,000 tickets at $50 each are sold out. Obviously not everyone is selling paper cones of walnuts.

It’s clear we’ll be very late to our hotel, so we gird ourselves for the worst meal of our trip and have a rest-stop dinner. We walk through the smoke-filled bar — crammed full of angry tattoos and men who look like they could kill you without breaking a sweat. I can’t help but wonder which of these burly, aggressive guys might have been a killer or a rapist in the war that put “ethnic cleansing” into our vocabulary. While the bar is packed, the adjacent restaurant is empty. I ask the boy stuck at the cafeteria line what he’d eat. In his estimation, the mushroom and chicken with potato croquettes or gnocchi was the least of evils. I missed the woman with the shrapnel in her back.

At Rijeka, the ugliest town in Croatia, we run out of super-expressway. We’ve driven virtually its entire length and are about to pay the maximum toll. Cameron warns this will be pricey. We guess. Cameron says 250 kunas. I say 150. It’s 155…but the lady at the booth doesn’t understand my joy when she tells us the bill. (At about 5 kunas per dollar, that’s about $30 for the three-hour drive.)

We’re finally in Istria, Croatia’s trendy peninsula just across the water from Venice and bordering Slovenia. There’s a strong buzz about Istria…but my hunch is it’s a watered-down Tuscany at best. Through a driving rainstorm, we wind and wind through the dark to the summit of a hill town (Motovun). The road gets narrower and narrower. When we run out of road, we park, get out, and walk. Our rooms are ready. Sharing tales of tour guide friends who like to arrive after dark for the theatrics, we’ll have to wait to see what is revealed with the sun tomorrow. Then I’ll learn just how good this Istria is.


22 Replies to “Sarajevo Roses, Croatian Squeegees, and the Worst Meal Yet”

  1. Congratulations on (finally) visiting Isria, one of the areas that ex-dictator Tudjman dared not visit or try to impose his will. I think you’ll find Pula and the smaller villages (notice that road signs are written in both Croatian & Italian!) are a wonderful get-away….providing you don’t approach them with the all-too-familiar ‘Tuscany Tourist’ bias. Relax, and enjoy (especially Rovinj)! I thoroughly enjoy your travelogues. Your guides to Scandinavia proved invaluable during a recent trip.

  2. Good for you, great traveler~! THanx for continued coverage if not also for your pained existence. I have a friend here now back in her native Bosnia, reveling with family. I am anxious to see her comparisons of her home and the Indianapolis life she now enjoys. Your program today *(WFYI)made me realize we are all ONE when it comes to eating. God Gave us all the wherewithal and man made it look (and taste)different. I salivate over your radio program. Would that I was still traveling… Kiev and Beirut. Thnx -w-

  3. Spelling correction: ooops, that should be ‘Istria’ (not ‘isria’). Apparently I don’t proof-read as well as Rick Steves’ editors.

  4. Woow, $8 per/gal. for gas! They need Lee Cars. :) Is your trip winding up, Rick? Are you going to Germany and Denmark this time? I’m enjoying the blog!

  5. we really do not know what war is like-even those of us who have listened to and lost family in the “big wars” to so many they know no other life-your PBS shows are wonderful but the e-mail is so personal –thank you

  6. After our trip last year to Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Czech R.& Slovakia(inspired by you to do it on our own), we are considering Croatia, etc. again in 2008, so all your tips are valuable to us. It seems we inspired two others to do parts of the trip on their own(via the “graffiti wall!). They proclaimed a great trip, especially Plitvice. What a WONDER! Now, you’re inspiring me again to go back there, but after our trip to Morocco in October. Wish you’d tour there like we did with Lale in Turkey! What do you think of taking the ferry to BARI in Italy and seeing the “foot” and Puglia? Is that a good commbo? Last question. Have you ever considered a trip through Poland? I’m not sure why you don’t go there, except for Krakow, which was wonderful. It’s still relatively inexpensive, but not for long? Gdansk, Torun, Lvov, Poznan and many small cities in the country offer a lot, besides Warsaw. People are lovely! thanks!

  7. We visited Yugoslavia four times in the 1980s. Near Jajce, Emmy went into one of the restaurants with a big rotisserie in front complete with a sheep, and asked for a sandwich. We used the dictionary and showed them “take out.” The man cut a big slab of meat and put a large chunk of bread in the sack, all for about $3. We followed the narrow road toward the town of Rijeka Crnojevica, to see the special bridge pictured in a guide book. The lady at the stream-side cafe in Rijeka was just delighted to see a picture of “her” bridge in the guide book! In Pula, located at the southern tip of the Istria Peninsula, we saw one of the most intriguing old Roman Amphitheaters we have seen. We found the peninsula to be delightful. Pula Amphitheater

  8. Barbara & Jan asked about Puglia: — When most people think of a vacation in Italy they think of Venice, Milano, Florence and Rome. Be assured that a delightful vacation can be spent in Puglia, the “heel” of Italy. The little towns are an intellectual adventure, very different from what we have seen elsewhere. It’s a land of contrasts with barren plateaus and fertile plains; poor farms and wealthy estates; modern buildings and ancient stone structures. The green countryside is the result of mathematically precise vineyards and woodlands. A lot of stories and photos at Puglia, Trulli housesBari, Billboard Advertisement

  9. Thanks for taking us along on your blog. You get to see things that I may never be able to get to, so thanks for letting me visit them through you. If I could ask for a personal intrusion. You have talked about preparing for a trip, but how do you decompress from one? I always find the jet lag worse coming from Europe, I only have to make it to the Eastern time zone and just go back to work as an employee. I can’t imagine having to adjust to Pacific time zone yet alone having to return to running my own company! How do you make the adjustment back to your “other routine” in the states? Thanks again for your blog, it’s a daily pleasure to read it and the comments.

  10. Love to hear of your travels, Rick. Since my wife is disabled from a car accident, we cannot travel so we do the next best thing, buy another set of your fun travel videos.
    (We love the video outtakes.)

  11. My husband, Eddie, is from Trget, Croatia (not far from Pula). I had the pleasure of traveling with him there a few years ago and we are going again in September/October 2008. I only recently heard of Croatia being referred to as “The New Tuscany.” The Adriatic is also referred to as very similar to the Mediterranean. The reference to the “Med” may be true in the southern portion of Croatia, but my husband and I feel that all of Croatia deserves to be thought of with it’s own individuality. Croatia has a history of being controlled by many other countries and it’s time to let Croatia be Croatia. I enjoy learning about a country’s history when I know I will be spending a lot of time there and Croatia’s is extensive. It was once part of the Roman Empire, hence Jim Humberd’s reference to the Roman Amphitheatre in Pula. My husband escaped Tito’s rule in 1956 and although he has made a home here in the US, a part of him will always be in Croatia.

  12. Rick, Did you give the scarved young lady the Euro she requested? What is your policy on paying the locals for the privilege of taking their photos? Annely

  13. I am taking my first trip to Europe (Italy) in three months and although I have read most of Rick’s travel tips, I need to know how he goes ten days on five pair of socks AND three pair of underware without hitting the laundry.

  14. Love the blog. Feel like I am with you too. So… Is there any advice you coudl give on how to avoid the former “killer or rapist” types when you are traveling? Also: we are planning a trip to the Dominican Republic following your “pack light” mantra. i know already that we will enjoy ourselves so much more without the burden of large baggage. Thanks for all you do for us unlost wanderers out here Rick! Matthew (in Colorado)

  15. I would like just to mention to the comments on former “killers or rapist”. Rick get out of your ignorance please. Systematic rapes were committed by Serb forces during the last war. If you are planning to go to Bosnia avoid “Republika Srpska” it is controlled by those described above. Croatia does not have that problem. Yes you can end up in any city in US and find a bar with suspicious people.

  16. Rijeka, the ugliest town in Croatia??? Rick, you’ve obviously never been to Karlovac, Sisak or Osijek. :) Sure, Rijeka could use a facelift and it really needs to get rid of the inner city industrial zone – but the beautiful view of Kvarner Bay entirely makes up for any poor city planning from the communist era. Next time you’re in Rijeka, I highly recommend you go up to Trsat Castle and take in the 360 degree view of Rijeka. I think you’ll change your mind.

  17. I just hope that you are aware that Sarajevo, Mostar and Pocitelj are all in Bosnia and Herzegovina and not Croatia; and far from ugliest croatian towns – Rijeka with Opatija are Croatian jewels well kept – hope next time you visit them and see it for yourself

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