Bosnian Birthday

As George mentioned in his last post, our friends John and Shaun came to visit us in Dubrovnik. They arrived on July 5th, and since it was so close to George’s birthday, they brought his backpacking guitar along, so we now have music again. (YAY!)

After getting them settled in, Shaun immediately began learning Croatian.

On their first morning in the house at Zaton Bay, they got up earlier than we did and we heard this deep, sonorous voice speaking in Croatian. We popped out of bed to see if some local had stumbled in to the house looking for the people from Huck Finn Travel. It was Shaun, sounding every bit like a local.

On July 7th, George’s birthday, we decided to go to the politically complex and awkwardly named country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. If you had told any of us in 2011 that we would be visiting Bosnia one year later, “we would have been very surprised” (to quote our dear friend, John.)

We set out from Dubrovnik, headed for the town of Mostar, in the Bosnian region of the country. Carmen, our GPS unit, once again took us the scenic way. We passed through tiny Croatian villages up in the mountains that had obviously been damaged in the war during the 90s. As we came to the Bosnian border crossing, Shaun was anxiously awaiting the conversation with the crossing guard, hoping it would go something like this:

Border guy: “Where are you folks headed?”

Us: “Mostar”

Border guy: “Yeah, most are.”

(Get it? Mostar? Most are?)

Of course, it didn’t go that way. He told us that we couldn’t cross there. It was a place only for locals. We had to go around to the tourist crossing. This took us back to the Croatian coast, very near the 6 mile stretch of Bosnian coastline that separates the country of Croatia into 2 parts.

See that teeny, tiny strip of Bosnian coastline just north of Dubrovnik? Very odd. Back in the day, the rulers of Dubrovnik gave this strip of land to the Ottomans as a buffer between themselves and the Venetians to the north. The Venetians would never invade Ottoman territory. When the boundaries for Bosnia were being drawn up, they retained this part of their Ottoman heritage.

Our crossing was uneventful. We were especially bummed that we didn’t get a stamp in our passports proving that we had been to Bosnia. After several more crossings (back into Croatia, then back into Bosnia again) and then driving up through an agricultural valley, we arrived in the town of Mostar. We had a nice lunch in a shaded outdoor café and then set out to explore the town.

Mostar was the site of some heavy fighting in the 90s and its famous bridge was destroyed. The tiny museum in town has heart-rending footage of the bridge being bombed and falling into the river. It has since been rebuilt. Today it hosts visitors from all over the world. From the bridge, you can count 7 spires from mosques and churches scattered about the town. Our guidebook said that the road leading up to the bridge offers “the flavor of a Turkish bazaar, with some of the most colorful shopping this side of Istanbul.” It lived up to this description. We perused the shops and the goods lining the street, bought some ice cream, and ogled the beautiful emerald-green Neretva River below.

Bombed out building in Mostar

Checking out a map of the area in the street market.

Lois in the market.

View from the Old Bridge in Mostar

Two hot guys on the bridge. It must have been 95° out there.

We also stopped in to a local mosque. It was the first time I had ever been inside a mosque, and this one wasn’t grand. It had the feel of a well-loved, well-attended place of worship that had served a small community through good times and bad for many, many years.

Interior of one of the mosques in Mostar.

We decided to take a different route back home, one that would take us through the Herzegovina region of the country. While Bosnia is predominantly Muslim, Herzegovina is mostly Serbian Orthodox, and both areas have some Croatian Catholic mixed in as well. Our drive through the mountains of Herzegovina led us to a Serbian Orthodox church.

Serbian Orthodox Church.

Interior of orthodox church

The fields surrounding this town were growing a large-leafed plant that would have been familiar to American southerners, though it took us awhile to work out that it was tobacco.

Tobacco fields in Herzegovina

Toward the end of the day, we were getting tired and we decided we needed a coffee break. We stopped in to the very small town of Trebinje (Treh-BEAN-ya), and found a little street-side coffee bar. Armed with a smattering of several languages (English, Italian, German and a tiny bit of Croatian), we felt confident in our ability to communicate. It was simple gesturing, smiles and goodwill, though that brought 4 cups of espresso to our table. This was not a tourist town, and the locals only spoke Serbian (at least we’re pretty sure it was Serbian.)

After a leisurely break, our waitress brought the bill to our table. And this is where the currency adventure began…

You’ll recall that back in Mostar we were able to buy lunch and shop at the local market. This wasn’t because we had stopped at an ATM machine and gotten some of the local currency, which in Bosnia-Herzegovina is the mark (it used to be tied to the old Deutsch mark before Germany converted to the euro.) It was because Mostar is a tourist town and, in addition to the local currency, they also accepted euros and Croatian kuna. In fact, they posted prices on little hand-written signs in all 3 currencies. Being the savvy shopper that I am, I learned right away that

8 kuna = 4 marka = 1 euro   (marka is the plural of mark)

I glanced at the bill. 2 marka each x 4 cups of coffee = 8 marka. 2 euro total, which is about $2.50. At 50 euro cents per cup, this was the cheapest espresso we had encountered in all our travels. (It was also delicious, by the way.) Armed with plenty of kuna, we were about to leave 20 kuna on the table and go (16 kuna for the coffee, plus a tip.) The waitress came over and somehow communicated, “No kuna.”

George looked in his wallet and found a €50 note, about the equivalent of $63.

“Euro?” he asked.

“Ok, euro.”

George handed the €50 note to her, and she indicated that she didn’t have euro change.

We weren’t sure what to do. This was the end of our one day in Bosnia-Herzegovina and we didn’t want to go to the ATM and take out whatever the minimum amount of marka would be.

Trying to be as friendly as possible, she indicated that we should wait where we were. She’d be back. She left with the €50 note and walked down the street and turned the corner. We watched our money walk away and began to wonder if the cheapest coffee in Europe was about to turn into the most expensive coffee in Europe.

After about 10 minutes, she returned shaking her head. No luck. A man sitting in the café, indicated that he would try, and again our €50 disappeared down the street. We couldn’t help but sit there and laugh, drawing the attention of all passersby.

Several minutes later, he returned triumphant. He had managed to get change for our €50! To our dismay, the change was in marka. About $60 worth of marka.

Example of Bosnian money. Doesn’t this guy look a little like Mark Twain?

There was only one thing to do – stay for dinner.

It was only about 4:30 in the afternoon, so we set off to find a restaurant. After wandering around the town and waiting for things to open, we finally located a pizzeria. We ordered pizza, salad, wine, and water for 4 people. After eating our fill, we ordered dessert. It was George’s birthday after all, so we had to have cake. When we got the bill and calculated a hefty tip for our fabulous waiter, we still had money left over, so we did what anyone would do. We ordered some drinks and toasted our favorite birthday boy.

Our bellies full, our heads light, and our newfound currency expended, we headed home. It didn’t escape John and Shaun’s notice that George had managed to pay for his own birthday dinner. Being the generous souls that they are, they found this completely unacceptable and set about overpaying at every turn for the rest of the trip. That coffee turned out to be not only the cheapest in Europe, but it paid dividends in the end.

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6 thoughts on “Bosnian Birthday

  1. Thanks for these beautiful pictures — have fun / sretan put! I was there in June — lots of photos and reflections on my blog if you’re ever interested….

  2. Thanks Lois–it was fun to relive that glorious day. Your description of my attempt to learn the language, however, was far too kind. I know several cashiers at Pemo Market who would disagree with your assessment.

    • You were fabulous and amazing in your language acquisition skills. I’m most impressed and a little jealous. Thanks for leaving a comment. I’m so glad to know that you read this particular post.

  3. Lois,

    I love seeing all of the these incredible places through George and your eyes!!! What an amazing adventure. I am so envious!! but I feel like I have traveled there with your pictures.
    Gretchen

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