I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Sarajevo Roses, Croatian Squeegees, and the Worst Meal Yet

 

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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.

Bosnian Hormones and a Shiny New Cemetery

 

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In two months of travel on this trip, exploring the city of Mostar ranks with Tangier among my richest experiences. At the same time, the vibrant humanity and the persistent reminders of the terrible war just over a decade ago combine to make Mostar strangely exhausting.

Just a few years ago, these people — who make me a sandwich, direct me to a computer terminal in the cyber café, stop for me when I cross the street, show off their paintings, and direct the church choir — were killing each other.

Three hours’ drive inland from Dubrovnik, Mostar (in Bosnia-Herzegovina) was famous for its 400-year-old, Turkish-style stone bridge — its elegant single pointed arch symbolic of that Muslim society and the town’s status as the place were East met West in Europe.

Then, during the 1990s, Mostar became an icon of the Bosnian war. Across the world, people groaned when the pummeled bridge — bombarded by (Croat Catholic) artillery shells from the hilltop above — finally collapsed into the river. Now the bridge has been rebuilt and Mostar is thriving.

Masala Square (literally “Place for Prayer”) is designed for big gatherings. Muslim groups meet here before departing to Mecca on the Haj. But tonight, there’s not a hint of prayer. It’s prom night. The kids are out…Bosnian hormones are bursting. Being young and sexy is a great equalizer. With a beer, loud music, desirability, twinkling stars…and no war…your country’s GDP doesn’t really matter.

Today’s 18-year-old in Mostar was a preschooler during the war. I imagine there’s quite a generation gap.

I’m swirling in all the teenagers, and through the crowd, a thirty-something local comes at me with a huge smile. He’s Alen from Orlando. Actually, he’s from Mostar, but fled to Florida during the war and summers here with his family. He loves my TV show and immediately has me going on a Bosnia script.

We walk, and Alen gives the city meaning. A fig tree grows out of a small minaret. He says, “It’s a strange thing in nature…figs can grow with almost no soil.” There are blackened ruins everywhere. When I ask why — after 15 years — the ruins still stand, Alen explains, “Confusion about who owns what. Surviving companies have no money. The bank of Yugoslavia, which held the mortgages, is now gone. No one will invest until it’s clear who owns the buildings.”

We side-trip to a small cemetery congested with over a hundred white marble Muslim tombstones. Alen points out the dates. Everyone died in 1993, 1994, or 1995. This was a park before 1993. When the war heated up, snipers were a constant concern — they’d pick off anyone they saw walking down the street. Bodies were left for weeks along the main boulevard, which had become the front line. Mostar’s cemeteries were too exposed, but this tree-filled park was relatively safe from snipers. People buried their neighbors here…under the cover of darkness.

Alen says, “In those years, night was the time when we lived. We didn’t walk…we ran. And we dressed in black. There was no electricity. If they didn’t kill us with their bullets, the Croats killed us with their rabble-rousing pop music. It was blasting from the Catholic side of town.”

The symbolism of the religious conflict is powerful. Ten minarets pierce Mostar’s skyline like proud exclamation points. There, twice as tall as the tallest minaret, stands the Croats’ new Catholic Church spire. Standing on the reconstructed Old Bridge, I look at the hilltop high above the town, with its single, bold, and strongly floodlit cross. Alen says, “We Muslims believe that cross marks the spot from where they shelled this bridge…like a celebration.”

The next day, I’m in a small theater with 30 Slovenes (from a part of the former Yugoslavia that avoided the terrible destruction of the war) watching a short film about the Old Bridge, its destruction, and its rebuilding. The persistent shelling of the venerable bridge, so rich in symbolism, seemed to go on and on. When it finally fell, I heard a sad collective gasp…as if the Slovenes were learning of the tragedy just now.

The feeling I get from people here today is, “I don’t know how we could have been so stupid to wage an unnecessary war.” I didn’t meet anyone here who called the war anything but a tragic mistake.

A big issue for me and Cameron for our guidebook is which day trip from Dubrovnik is best: the lovely town of Korcula on the island of Korcula; the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro; or Mostar here in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There’s no question: it’s Mostar. And with the money you save in relative hotel costs, you can hire a private guide and get the Mostar story from someone who had to wait until dark to bury his neighbors.

That night, as the kids ripped it up at the dance halls, I lay in bed sorting out my impressions. Until the wee hours, a birthday party raged in the restaurant outside my window. For hours they sang songs. At first I was annoyed. Then I thought, a Bosniak Beach Boys party beats a night of shelling. In two hours of sing-a-longs, everyone seemed to know the words very well…and I didn’t recognize a single tune. This Bosnian culture will rage on.

Bosnia: Buffalo-Nickel Charm on a Road That Does Not Exist

 

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Today we drove from Dubrovnik in Croatia inland to Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Everyone takes the main, scenic coastal route: head north along the coast and then cut inland at Metkovic. But, with a spirit of adventure, we took the small road: inland first, then looping north through the Serb part of Herzegovina. When asked for driving tips, Croats — who, because of ongoing tensions with the Serbs, avoid this territory — actually insist that the road doesn’t even exist. From the main road just south of Dubrovnik, directional signs send you to the tiny Croatian border town…but ignore the large Serb city of Trebinje just beyond.

But there is plenty past the border. (And, we were relieved to find, an actual — and surprisingly well-maintained — road.)

While Bosnia-Herzegovina is one country, the peace accords to end the war here in 1995 gerrymandered it to give a degree of autonomy to the area where Orthodox Serbs predominate. This “Republika Srpska” rings the core of Bosnia on three sides.

The complex nature of things here comes across in the powerful language of flags. Over the day we saw several: a car charging with the old quasi-fascist Croat flag (echoing Croatia’s WWII Nazi puppet government), a Serb flag, and another with a circle of yellow stars — a tip of the hat to the EU…membership is the hope of many here.

Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks come from virtually identical ethnic stock. They just have different religions: Orthodox Christian, Catholic Christian, and Muslim, respectively. Because of intermarriages during the Ottoman occupation, some (but not all) Bosniaks also have some Turkish blood. Studying the complex demographics of the region, you gain a respect for the communist-era dictator Tito — the one man who could hold this place together peacefully.

As we enter the bustling and prosperous town of Trebinje (the one that doesn’t exist in Dubrovnik), police with ping-pong paddle stop signs pull us over — you must drive with your headlights on at all hours. The “dumb tourist” routine gets us off the hook. I get cash at an ATM (even here — in perhaps the most remote place I’ve been in Europe — ATMs are plentiful). We enjoy a vibrant market, noting that there’s no way the casual tourist could determine the religion and loyalties of the people just by looking.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s money is called the “convertible mark.” I don’t know if they are just thrilled that their money is now convertible…but I remember a time when it wasn’t. I stow a few Bosnian coins as souvenirs. They have the charm of Indian pennies and buffalo nickels.

Later, after a two-hour drive on deserted roads through a rugged landscape, we arrived at the very humble crossroads village of Nevesinje. Towns in this region all have a “café row,” and Nevesinje is no exception. It was lunchtime, but as we walked through the town, we didn’t see a soul with any food on their plate — just drinks. Apparently locals eat (economically) at home…and then enjoy an affordable coffee or drink at a café.

A cluttered little grocery — the woman behind the counter happy to make a sandwich — was our answer. The salami looked like Spam. Going through the sanitary motions, she laid down a piece of paper to catch the meat — but the slices of Spam landed on the grotty base of the slicer as they were cut. Buying strong Turkish (or “Bosnian”) coffees with highly-caffeinated mud in the bottom (for the US equivalent of a quarter apiece), we munched our sandwiches in the adjacent café, watching the street scene.

Big men drove by in little beaters. High-school kids crowded around the window of the local photography shop, which had just posted their class graduation photos. The girls on this cruising drag proved you don’t need money to have style. Through a shop window, I could see a newly-engaged couple picking out a simple ring. One moment I saw Nevesinje as very different from my hometown…but the next it seemed just the same.

Looking at the curiously overgrown ruined building across the street, I saw bricked-up, pointed Islamic arches, and realized it was once a mosque. In its back yard — a no man’s land of broken concrete and glass — a single half-knocked-over Turban-topped tombstone still managed to stand. The prayer niche inside, where no one prays anymore, faced an empty restaurant.

More Questions from Curious Blog-Reading Travelers

Question: After spending so much time in Europe for so many years, how do you keep things fresh, once you’ve been to a place and already seen all the sights?
Answer: I sometimes ponder dedicating an entire year of travels to all new places. But then, when I return to a city I think I know, I learn so much and am able to improve an existing guidebook chapter. This year so far virtually new destinations for me have been: Cordoba, Tangier, Zagreb, Bosnia, and Montenegro. And I’m really quite high on each of these places. But I’m just as excited about how I’ve spiffed up my Barcelona, Sevilla, and Italy material. And there’s no thrill for a tour guide like producing a dynamite new TV show (which we just did covering Barcelona and the Dordogne). Fresh? Everything’s still wiggling.

Question: I’m worried about taking a camera due to European pickpockets. Will it be safe packed in my day bag? I’m especially worried about the “packed-in” situations at train stations, on busses, and so on.
Answer: As Europe gets more affluent, I no longer hear about the brazen “break the car window and grab your purse while at a stop light” kind of theft. Throughout Europe’s rough spots, I feel much safer now than a decade ago. You still need to exercise caution and assume thieves will target American tourists. But the least of my concerns is a thief grabbing my camera. The real risk is a mental lapse on my part and just forgetting something when out and about.

Question: Any useful phrases to say in Europe, like vada via (“go away”)?
Answer: I enjoyed saying complimenti a lot when wanting to give Italians my complements for something well done or served.

Question: Do you have any tips on how to get around Venice and Dubrovnik with mobility issues?
Answer: Bring a sedan chair with two strong boys. These places (along with the Cinque Terre villages and Italian hill towns) are about a miserable as can be for anyone who has trouble with steps. Go off-season to avoid the heat and crowds. I think choosing places where “car touring” works (West Ireland, England’s Cotswolds, France’s Dordogne, Danish countryside) would be easier and more enjoyable.

Question: Do you still lead tours for your tour company? Also, is there any way to select one of your tours based on the tour guide before committing to a tour?
Answer: I led our tours for 25 years (until 2002). I have 60 guides that do our tours now…and I can promise you most of them (specialists in their regions) do a better job then I (the generalist) could do. I personally am thrilled to be trusting my wife’s and my two-week vacation this September in Greece to one of our Greek guides. Sure, our guides vary in degrees of excellence. But I have complete faith in each of our guide’s ability to exceed the high expectations of our tour customers. There are always some tour members who don’t click personally with a guide. In these cases, while I empathize with the tour member…I support our guide. But if a guide can’t exceed expectations for the majority of the people on their tour, they don’t work for us.

Question: How do you keep from losing the perspective of the inexperienced traveler who needs to pack lightly and spend frugally? It seems the fact you have a production staff in tow would prevent that possibility.
Answer: This is a great question…and challenge. I make a point to be befuddled, to be stressed by the high cost, to be wide-eyed and green. (It seems to come naturally.) It is critical for me not to loose the mind-set of the less-experienced travelers who use my material, but then to draw on my experience to distill and design all the data and information into a helpful little package. Because I’m the generalist on my staff (who doesn’t speak another language), I can remind my researchers who specialize in a particular country what it’s like to be overwhelmed, tentative, and frustrated by the challenges presented by a new city. I still don’t know the words for “push” or “pull” in any language other than my own…and look forward to walking into doors all over Europe for a long time to come.

Questions from Curious Blog-Reading Travelers

Question: With airlines asking you to put carry-ons on the scale to make sure they’re under 8 kg, do you find your packing list still works the same?
Answer: I pack the same as always. I find, in practice, it’s the dimensions, not the weight, that are the determining factor. I do carry on all my luggage whenever I can. If necessary I wear my coat and sweater and put my heavy electronic gear (laptop, camera, etc.) in my day pack. That leaves my “one piece of luggage” quite light and tight. If I fail the test, I’ll check my bags. I pack light not just to “carry it on” but to be mobile while in Europe.

Question: If the overhead compartments are full, will airlines make you check your bag? (British Air made me check a carry-on bag, as Heathrow now has a one-item rule.)
Answer: Yes, but I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t find a place to fit my bag. I used to hurry onto the plane fearing there would be no room in the overhead lockers. Now I relax at the gate until the very end. This lets me stroll on board without a long line and sit wherever I like, knowing definitively which seats are available. About Heathrow’s one-bag rule: My last time through London they actually told me to cram my day bag into my other bag, just to get past the check-in person. They admitted, after that…no one cares.

Question: What’s a “post 9/11-sized Swiss Army Knife” you mentioned? I can’t even get a little 1 1/4-inch Swiss Army pen knife through security.
Answer: I bury my 2.5-inch knife in my toiletries kit and they have never noticed it. If they do, I’m ready to loose it. I think the USA is realizing “zero tolerance” may get you elected…but in practice it’s pretty silly.

Question: As opposed to bad traits, are there any particular American attributes that Europeans find charming or refreshing?
Answer: Europeans are charmed by the casual friendliness that comes naturally to us Americans. My French friends can’t believe how friendly perfect strangers are to me and vice versa when I meet fans of my books or TV shows on the streets of Europe. I think they are charmed by (and a bit envious of) this.

Question: What brand of shirts do you wear in your travels? They never seem wrinkled.
Answer: No special secrets here. I don’t buy special gear from travel catalogs or travel stores…just Nordstroms, REI, and Eddie Bauer. I just checked — and all my shirts are 100% cotton except for one which is 60% cotton/40% polyester.

Question: Has Jackie ever been anywhere in Europe by herself, like her brother Andy? Does she plan to do the same trip that you and Andy took with one of her friends when she graduates from high school?
Answer: Seventeen-year-old Jackie just finished 11th grade. Next week she flies to Morocco with a program from her high school. After a week in Rabat, she’ll live in a humble village (no iPod, cell phone, laptop, or communication with home) for three weeks. She’ll be immersed in Moroccan village life (with no indoor plumbing, she stresses), putting her French to work, and learning how to live without all the material comforts rich suburban teens take for granted. She, her mom, and I are all excited about this personal challenge for her. She’s scheming to take a trip to Southeast Asia with a girlfriend after high school graduation next year. Meanwhile, Andy is well into his second year as an assistant tour guide for us in Europe.

Thanks for the questions.