On the morning of 8th June, I awoke at the ungodly hour of 3am, dusted off my tiny green shoes after a two-month travel hiatus, finished packing my carry-on bag and headed to the airport. It was off to Dubrovnik for me, to meet up with a few girlfriends for a four-day road trip around a small portion of the Balkans.
I knew I was going to like Dubrovnik even as I arrived into the airport. This colorful city in southern Croatia, with endless orange tile roofs juxtaposed against a stunning turquoise coastline, certainly deserves its nickname: the Pearl of the Adriatic! The Old Town is a traffic-free, pedestrian zone, encircled by high stone walls. Within the perimeter of these walls there are infinite shops/restaurants as well as a multitude of steep staircased narrow alleys (I’m told there are 4,343 total steps within these ramparts).
The five of us quite comfortably stayed in a three story/four-bedroom apartment, perfectly situated in the heart of the Old Town.
After checking into the accommodation and meeting up with the rest of the gang, the first thing on the agenda was a long, boozy lunch and a catch-up sesh. Whilst eating, we started discussing our next meal, as you do. Konoba Dubrava had been recommended by a colleague for traditional Dalmatian food. After a bit of research, we learned that this restaurant received many accolades, including ‘best restaurant in Dubrovnik’ and a 4.5 star rating on TripAdvisor. And so it was decided. I called to make a reservation. It turns out that if you want any of the house specialties, you have to order them well in advance, since they are slow-cooked for three hours, under an iron bell. Seeing as I was not prepared to choose my entrees at the time of booking, I panicked and ordered for an army.
Full of sustenance and sorted for dinner, we decided to hike up the stairs to the top of the famous city walls, which have earned themselves a UNESCO World Heritage designation.
We had to hurry along a bit because the wall walk was shutting at 7:30pm and we had intentions of taking the cable car 412 meters up Mount Srđ in time for sunset (which was scheduled for 8:24pm). In the end, we missed the cable car and all had to squish into a cab instead. The driver was lovely though and stopped several times along the way for photos ops. We arrived at the top of the mountain right before the witching hour, just in time to snap some scenic pictures, share a bottle of rosé and mingle with some goats.
From there, we walked half way back down the mountain to the restaurant. The venue itself had an open seating plan, sort of barn-style. The staff was very attentive and friendly. Upon arrival, we received complimentary shots and a tour of the oven area where our dinner was already cooking. We then ordered a bunch of starters and wine while we waited for the main course to finish being prepared. It turned out that my pre-order of three lambs and two octopus was FAR too much for the five of us. Even with all that food though, the bill was incredibly reasonable.
The next morning, we wandered around Old Town a bit more and grabbed some breakkie before all piling into our giant van and heading to our next destination: Blagaj, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since Dubrovnik’s airport is about 30 minutes south of Old Town and we were headed on a northern route, we made the executive decision to save time by collecting the rental when we landed and then parking it overnight in the Hilton’s garage (which was only about 270 meters from the Pile Gate entrance to Old Town).
Three hours and three border crossings later, we arrived at the village of Blagaj. It was tough to park our monster vehicle, but our very capable driver managed to tuck it nicely into a tight space in a parking lot that cost us only €3. Blagaj is a quaint place located on the Buna River, surrounded by mountains and known for its mystical Dervish Monastery (AKA Blagaj Tekke). Just as we arrived, it started to rain. We managed to escape the showers my ducking into Restaurant Vrelo. There we had a wonderful waiter named Adi who taught us about traditional Bosnian food and booked us a reservation at his buddy’s new restaurant in Mostar for that evening.
Just as we finished up our lunch, the rain dried up and the sun reappeared. We each paid €2 to enter the monastery, which was not worth it. Plus, you have to be dressed appropriately, which we were not. The real money shot, from a photographic standpoint, is free and should be captured from the opposite side of the river.
From Blagaj, it was about a 20 minute to drive to Mostar, a city in Southern Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our hotel was in Mostar’s City Center, which was poor planning on my part. We should have stayed in Old Town, which was about a 30-minute walk from City Center. It was a nice stroll though and we got to see a lot of the visible destruction that still exists, post-Bosnian war. Mostar was the most heavily bombed Bosnian city during the war. Although the city is now mostly rebuilt and beautiful, it’s not without its issues. We had been warned about thievery and pickpocketing, so we were careful, but we never experienced any trouble.
Mostar’s Old Town is small, cobbled and full of stalls selling all sorts of tchotchkes. It’s situated right under the famous Ottoman-style bridge, called Stari Most (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The bridge was destroyed during the war, in 1993 and then reconstructed in 2004.
We dined right along the river, at a new place called Divan, which had only opened one month prior. Since our waiter from Blagaj, Adi, had made the reservation for us, we were treated like royalty. The food was excellent and plentiful. The service was impeccable. When it got cold, blankets were supplied. When it started to rain, shelter was created and umbrellas were provided. When we closed the place down and there were no taxis, the owner drove us back to our hotel. Talk about service!
The following day was rainy and cool, but we were not bothered because our next stop brought us to Kravice Waterfalls. The drive took about an hour from Mostar and it cost 4 Bosnian Marks (BAM) each to enter. The falls were absolutely gorgeous and very secluded. Perhaps it was due to the rain, but there were only a handful of people there when we arrived, and even fewer when we left. The water was fresh and freezing, but we decided to get in and frolic anyway. It was magical!
Soaking wet and happy, we then carried on driving to our final destination: Split, Croatia. That portion of the road trip should have taken about an hour and a half, but was prolonged due to numerous stops made, in various Croatian villages, to try to find food. There were no shortages of cafes and bars, but zero restaurants. It was bizarre.
We only spent one night in Split. That felt like enough. The next day, the rest of the troops headed off sailing on Yacht Week whilst I stayed on dry land. I passed the hours before my flight exploring Diocletian’s Palace and hiking up Marjan Hill, which were both beautiful.
It's worth noting that the food in both Croatia and Bosnia was incredible. Although menus were somewhat limited and seemed to be similar from place to place, everything was organic and fresh. From lamb cooked under an iron bell for three hours to freshly caught fish and savory donuts accompanied by soft cheese, these countries have both nailed things from a culinary perspective. But, if there’s one thing Croatia and Bosnia have absolutely mastered, it’s the placement of restaurants. Everywhere we ate was outdoors, in cute narrow alleyways, built into the side of a cliff where you could actually feel the spray of the sea or basically in a lake/waterfall. And everything is very reasonably priced on top of it all. I will definitely be back to explore more of the Balkans. It’s a wonderful part of the world and I highly recommend a visit.