The Stars of Dalmatia: Mostar, Dubrovnik & Kotor
Jun 10, 2006
David Rich 1200 Words
One Euro (Macedonia)=$1.30; 10 Kuna (Croatia)=$1.90; 10 Kuma (Bosnia Herzegovina)=$1.20
The Stars of Dalmatia: Mostar, Kotor & Dubrovnik
When I sailed the Dalmatian coast in 1989, the stars of Dalmatia were in a single country called Yugoslavia. By mid-2006 Yugoslavia had withered to the single country of Serbia, having spawned a half dozen others in a bloody civil war that took most of the 1990s to resolve. Now Mostar is in Bosnia Herzegovina, Kotor is in the world's newest country of Montenegro (referendum May 2006), and Dubrovnik is in Croatia. But the borders remain easy to cross, no advance visas or fees required.
The three stars are absolutely magical, within two or three hours of each other by bus, experiences not to be missed in the land of Marco Polo, who was born on nearby Korcula Island. Though my fourth visit to the area and the other two stars, it was my first time in Mostar. The truly incredible Mostar stone bridge, named stari most (the star with the mostest) was commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent in 1566 and completed nine years later, attracting pilgrims from the corners of the earth for 427 years until destroyed in 1993 during the Bosnian-Croatian war. It took ten years to rebuild, which for two reasons was longer than it took the whizzes of the 16th century. Proper reconstruction required the local stone, pale Tenelija, to be assembled randomly in varying shapes and sizes, the anomalies creating a work of art, changing color with the position of the sun. And only 16th century techniques could exactly replicate the original. The resulting new bridge is another perfect work of art, a broad, up-thrusting pedestrian arch across the emerald river Neretva to which tourists again flock, from all over the world.
Though many buildings remain bullet-pocked and ruins litter the city, the old section has been largely restored, beginning with the copper-beaters street (Mostar's heartbeat) in the old Ottoman quarter on the west side of the bridge, cobbled, steep and studded with artist lofts, sidewalk cafes, 16th century mosques and views of the old bridge to die for while sipping a cappuccino or beer. Vantage points surround the bridge on all sides, providing great views of local divers jumping from its pinnacle. They do this for a good reason, which is hard currency. The ritual requires a diver in rippling bikini, an accompanying shill insanely clapping his hands to loosen tourist pockets, and finally a third guy entering stage left with a kettle of icy water to pour over the divers head. Head soaking, the diver eventually soars off the bridge like a rock, prepared for the shock of the always freezing river that looks so benign in emerald. Stagecraft at its best, for the price of a cappuccino.
The western cliff face is covered with café patios and umbrellas, many housed in and around a former Turkish bath with six traditional domes. A mosque on the east side is open to the public, minaret climbable for excellent views, two euros, or $2.60. And practically next door sits an ancient Turkish house decorated with pebbles, a dozen-spout fountain (one for each month) and four watering pots for the seasons. The back room of the house hangs directly over the river while the courtyard is littered with turtles. Nearby, billowing bins of ice cream offer towering cones for 50 euro cents ($.65). Thus, for those into spectator sports, fancy coffees, astounding photography and a yazoo of quaint, go to Mostar. And then go to Dubrovnik.
Dubrovnik was paradise on earth, according to George Bernard Shaw, and except for hordes of tourists and inflated prices, pretty much still is. The encircling old city walls stretch over two kilometers, reaching 25 meters (80 feet) and taking two hours to leisurely stroll, through 16 towers and a couple of fortresses, past assorted canons and views of city living, for a mere $6. Depending on the light and level of tourist hassle, the feeling of the white marble pavements in the quaint old town ranges from austere and stark to warm and lovely. The main walking street (no cars allowed in old town) is packed with overpriced cafes and boutiques, and ridiculous souvenirs, but some of the paintings offered are passable, and particularly photogenic are the traditional Jewish scenes, from weddings and hip-hop bands, to bashful maidens and clowns in a rainbow of colors. Then there's the odd church, museum, antique stone house and monastery, bounded on three sides by the sparkling Adriatic. The 1991 destruction of Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav army was repaired through international efforts, unfortunately leading to a logjam of tourists descending with a vengeance. But go anyway, because beneath it all, paradise still peaks through. Then go to Kotor, for relative peace and quiet in one of the most remarkable bays in the world, southern Europe's deepest fjord.
You have to drive half way around the platypus-shaped fjord of 43 kilometers (27 miles) to reach Kotor town at the furthest end. Its ancient wall snakes up a sheer granite mountain, past an old sentinel of a stone church, up 1500 steps to the fortress high above, vivid red flag of the world's newest country whipping defiantly in the breeze from a tall flagstaff on the topmost part of the wall. The views are spectacular, beginning with the old town between your feet, the triple domed orthodox cathedral of St. Nicholas with its pink-stoned square in front, the rear bordered by the translucent green of the north moat, which turns out to be a river, while the similar stream on the south end flows from a spring. To the north, as far as you can see, stretches the humongous fjord, past villages untouched by time and two miniature islands off one such village, Perast. The Lady of the Rock Island was created over five centuries by locals dropping rocks, once a year, onto an underwater mount, and is topped by the statue of a lady on a rock. The other tiny island of St. George hosts a monastery shaded by cypress trees, an additional accent in the Bay of Kotor, the third star of Dalmatia.
When you go: In Mostar we stayed in the Motel Kriva Cuprija, a nice place near the old bridge on a tributary of roaring water where the manager was truly obsessed by the world cup that began that day, doubles 55 euros; excellent squid plate six euros and a half liter of beer, one and a half euros. In Dubrovnik try the quaint Begovic Guesthouse in Lapad, a 40 minute stroll from the old city, or ten minutes by crowded bus, rooms with kitchenette 240 Kuna ($44). In Kotor stay at the Hotel Fjord, a rambling crumbling hotel with hundreds of rooms, balconies over-looking the bay, 42 euros, or its sister hotel in the old town, the Hotel Vardar, 48 euros double. Ferries ply the Adriatic to Dubrovnik from a half dozen Italian ports while many European airlines fly from France, Germany and the UK to Dubrovnik for about $200.