Riding Dalmatia, The Croatian Coast to Split

Leaving on the ferry from Trpanj on the Peljesac heading to Ploce and on to Split.

Though I would later regret my decision, I take the ferry from Trpanj to Ploce and ride to Split along the coast. Someone talked me out of taking the ship to Korcula, and then from there take another ferry to Split. “Are you here to ride or get ferried around in boats?” the local guide asks. Candidly, I am here to do both. Yet he made a good point. I thought until I found myself in a trance riding the traffic-congested coast road. I would rather relax on a boat.

While on the ferry I take advantage of the wifi to search for accommodations in Split. I want to stay close to the Diocletian Palace, but most of the guest houses are inside the palace complex closed to motor vehicle traffic. Nearby the only options are very expensive or fully booked.

The most important factor I consider when choosing accommodations in a larger city is the parking and the security of my motorcycle. While apps like Booking.com or others offer a variety of private apartments, I avoid these because I prefer a place that has 24-hour reception and security. In small villages, this is not a concern, but that’s what I would prefer in Split. But here, I’m out of luck.

One apartment I find looks good, has excellent reviews, and when I contact the owner/manager and address my parking and security concerns, she tells me that there is no problem, the apartment is located in a small and secure neighborhood, yet is still a short walking distance to the palace. I book it.

As I roll into Split, passing gaudy big concrete block shopping centers with huge scenery-killing signs of brand logos and other marks blatant consumerism. There’s even a store named “Konzum.”

After some difficulty, I find the apartment. It’s on the fourth floor of a five-floor building. There is no elevator. To be sure, I usually take the stairs to keep the step, floor, and activity count climbing on my Apple Watch. But when I first arrive at a new place, I unpack my bike and carry everything to my room. If I were a typical cruise-ship or airplane trailer, I’d be bringing a single piece of wheeled luggage and a backpack. On a motorcycle, it’s challenging to consolidate luggage.

So for me, I’ve got two duffels, a photography backpack, laptop, and a few miscellaneous items like the GPS and such that must come off of the bike. This amounts to more than a handful of smaller things I must carry. I’ve only got two hands. At a hotel often there is someone to help, or I’ll make a couple trips. Here, I must carry these items about 50 meters to the entrance of the building. Then up four floors. This means multiple trips, and one more reason I’d rather be a full-service guest house or hotel.

So I pull all my stuff off the bike and bring it into the lobby of the apartment. Then I make my first trip up where I meet the host and manager of the apartment. She’s on her way out, and we walk down the stairs to the lobby. Seeing my stuff sitting on the floor she looks concerned. “Don’t leave your things unattended here.”

“I thought you said this was a safe neighborhood,” I reminded here of our email exchange. Then I ask her for parking. She tells me just to leave the bike on the street.

“Really?” It’s a narrow alley, more than a street. She says it doesn’t have a lot of traffic, so it should be okay. I question her. She assures me.

Golden Gate at the Diocletian Palace in Split Croatia.

By the time I get sorted in my room, changed, and ready to explore, its almost sunset. I walk to the nearby 1,500-year-old Roman palace or fortress set in the center of Split on Croatian’s Dalmatian Coast. Along the way, I stop to enjoy a cold beer and music in a park holding a Jazz Festival. Then I enter the

Built in 305 AD by Diocletian to serve as his home after retiring as Roman Emperor. To call it a palace is misleading as it’s more of a fortress complex with many buildings and courtyards. During Diocletian’s time, half of the “palace” housed a military garrison, while the other half was for the Emperor’s use. I will share more about the palace in a future post, for now, let us get on with the evening and my exploration.

I pass into the palace through the “Golden Gate,” one of four gates that lead visitors into the complex. The maze of narrow pathways and alleys is crowded as tonight the city is teeming with people. Without a map or any orientation, I wander the town aimlessly. I walk outside the city to the harbor where in the air I hear the echoes of conversation, clanking silverware, and muted music from the busy restaurants lining the waterfront.

Back inside the palace, I grab a table at Zinfandel, a small and cozy restaurant and wine bar where an acoustic duo entertains diners with traditional songs. The menu features Dalmatian fare served in small tapas-sized portions, while the wines by the glass are diverse and plentiful. For my first dish, I choose a crisp and fresh Posip from Korcula. From there, I move on to a rose, and many reds, including a deep rich Postup from the Peljesac.

Seabass carpaccio is a great pairing with white wine Posip from Korcula Island in Croatia.

Grilled meat tips are perfect for a pairing with Croatian red wines like Dark Side.

A winery with a great history but at the same time pushing the boundaries and making unique wines from indigenous varietals and amazing blends and sparkling wines, Ivancic.

When the restaurant notifies the remaining diners it’s last call, I order a glass of Ivancic Griffen Estate’s Dark Side Barrique, it’s a red wine made from the purtugizec grape in the Plešivica region of Croatia. It’s got plenty of fruit with subtle oak undertones and smooth tannins, an elegant and drinkable reasonably priced red by the glass.

Afterward, I continue my aimless wander around town. By the time I’m ready for a cold beer, it’s late, and I’m struck with self-imposed decision fatigue. I don’t want to go into the many bars with high-decibel thumping house music, so I continue to wander, just happy in my gaze. I’m delighted to delight in the architectural lighting that enhances the Roman ruins, and that reflects off the polished marble stones of the walkways.

The city is eerie and dramatic at night, though the thumping of house music in nearby clubs distracts from the brief diversion into Ancient “Rome”.

I find a small pub tucked into a dark corner in the old town near the palace’s “Iron Gate.” Here I’m not surprised but fascinated to find two women from California, Neya, and Malaki. They ask me if I have a light. Where I live, ashtrays are extinct, like payphone and CRT screens, nobody has them, nobody uses them. But here in Croatia, everyone seems to smoke, I don’t. I join my new friends while they sip their wine and share a charcuterie plate with me. One is from San Diego and the other in Orange County. They are dressed for a night on the town and politely ask for a few photos. I oblige.

New friends from Southern California who are on a short journey much different than mine, yet we find common ground in food, wine, and photography, meet Neya and Mikala.

Neya wants a good photo of herself. This is important. I’m happy to try. What do you think?

The Tower rises above the Diocletian Palace, though this was added many years after the Roman emperor enjoyed his retirement here.

It’s moody, it’s dark, but the moon brings light and shines as I wander and wonder about Split.

The marble paved alleys and walkways glisten in the ambient and moonlight.

When they leave, I suspect they will wander to one of the house-music thumping clubs. When I go, I wander, adding more to my fitness-tracking step count on my Apple Watch. Once again, The thumping music of many of the clubs irritates me, so I look elsewhere, but everyplace else is closed. Yet just off one plaza, I notice a small group of guys sitting at a few tables outside a restaurant drinking beer. Laughing and talking among each other with loud voices, they are having fun. I’m drawn by their jovialness, but when I ask if they’re open and try to order a beer, the English speaking waiter informs me the restaurant closed an hour ago. Those cockling around these tables is just the crew, waiters, cooks, bartender and dishwasher winding down after a busy night.

I walk away. Before I get 20 meters outside the seating area, I hear a voice.

“Wait! Are you alone,” I nod. “You just want a beer?”

“Yeah, a cold one!” I answer with a smile.

“Sit down, sit down,” he points to the table and brings me a cold frothy beer.

They talk among themselves for a moment, all in Croatian, I listen, drink my beer.

“I don’t know why…” the waiter turns to me and speaks in English. “I tell these guys,” he explains what they’ve been talking about. “All the time when people come by after closing and ask for a drink, I say no.”

He repeats himself. “Always no, I work here for five years. It’s no, no, no. But you…” he points at me and sports a warm smile. “You… I say yes. And I wonder why.”

He’s not regretting his decision. But something in my presence struck him. I have no answer for him. But I wonder if it’s because my energy, and approach might differ from the typical tourist. Plus I’m alone. I’m also a traveler, and I travel with no itinerary and have no bucket-list I need to check off. Most often I have what other tourists don’t have: time

Though Split is not as crazy as Dubrovnik, it is one of Croatia’s top tourist destination and its second largest city. It’s the primary port for embarking to Croatia’s famous islands such as Hvar, Brac, and Korcula. It’s Saturday night. These hospitality workers worked all week catering to the demands of an international melee of tourists. This is the time of the evening they can let go.

I notice my waiter handing over a few credit cards to the chef. I’m curious and ask about the exchange. My waiter friend tells me he has a gambling problem. Ever since he and his wife split up, he racks up a massive debt at the local casino. His friends at the restaurant know this and on weekends demand he turn over his credit cards. They want to protect him, help him. He whispers in my ear, “don’t worry Allan, I have another credit they don’t know about.

I finish the beer, and he brings me another one. The happy crew breaks out in song—I suspect a Croation traditional tune. It’s fun, so I capture the moment on my iPhone.

I hear the unmistakable sound of a suitcase rolling over the cobblestones nearby. Two elderly women approach the restaurant and ask for help. They tell the waiter they just arrived from the airport and have been wandering the city for an hour. They are lost. My waiter friend gives them directions, but the woman looks at him cross-eyed.

He calls the hotel and convinces them to meet the ladies here and help them back to the hotel. After the hotel worker arrives, my waiter friend turns and says, “Let’s go!”

“Where are we going?”

“With us, come on.”

So I join the waiter and chef and begin a fast-paced walk out of the city through the Silver Gate and into a taxi. I think he’s taking me to the casino.

“We go to disco,” he tells me. “You like disco, girls?” I nod.

After a twenty-minute ride we’re wandering through a seaside complex of restaurants, bars, and after marching some 40 steps down to the waterfront, he walks me into a busy bar. Thumping Serbian pop-music blasts through massive speakers.

My new friends take me under their wing and give me a taste of the club scene here in Split Croatia. Watch the video for more entertainment.

He squeezes through the crowd and wedges himself into the corner of the bar. Before I can say anything the bartender slams a bucket of ice on the bar with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a half-dozen mini-bottles of cokes.

He makes three drinks, hands me one. My new friend is social. He starts a conversation with a leggy-blond wearing too much makeup. She’s from Split and also works at a nearby hotel. He buys her a drink. I imagine he will use the secret credit card.

They both know the words of most of the songs. They are Serbian songs, he tells me. This evening seems to be a repeat or déjà vu from my time in Mostar. The evening progresses with more conversation, more girls, and more Jack and cokes. By 3AM the bar is packed, and I’ve lost my friends.

I run into a few other travelers, a few guys from the Netherlands. The mass of people cramming in the bar makes it uncomfortably hot.

It’s 4 am when I’m outside getting fresh air. I chat with the bouncer. More people stroll in. “When do you close,” I ask him.

“When everybody leaves,” he tells me, then with his massive hand gives me a pat on the shoulder. “It’s Saturday, probably see the sun before I go home.”

I look once more for my friends, but the swath of people and their kinetic moves combined with the noise of the music, I give up.

Should I go home? Probably. What am I doing tomorrow? I don’t know. Whatever it is, I’ll do it.

Outside the club, I realize  I don’t know where I am. To be sure, I’m well outside the old town. So, I resort to following the GPS on my phone. But my connection is so slow that the GPS cannot keep up with my pace. I keep walking.

It’s dark, and there are no cars, buses, or trucks. I think I’ve found my way when I pass the only sign of life on the streets. It’s a bakery. It’s bright fluorescent lights a stark contrast from the dark, quiet streets. Three women inside are hustling about, moving bread, pastries, and cookies onto the shelves. The smell of fresh bread, croissants is seductive. In my buzzed state, I give in and buy something dangerously good. It’s like a midnight snack. Except it’s 4:30 AM.

I find my apartment, check on my motorcycle, climb four flights and stumble into bed.

This happens when hanging with locals.

No complaints. So fun. So good. Even the pastry!

The Dingac Tunnel & Beyond

The Peljesac Peninsula. Here we look at the rough coastline and legendary vineyards of Dingac, home to some of the best Plavac Mali grapes and wine in the world.

For a small country, Croatia has so much for me to explore—and learn. Leaving Orebic in my rearview mirror behind, I head toward Dingač, the infamous and inhospitable wine region southeast of here.

The slopes are steep, rocky and only can be harvested by hand with the help of local animals. 

With my eye on research for my new book, I cannot leave the Peljesac peninsula until I’ve seen Dingac and its steep vineyards, rocky soil, and views of the Adriatic. After, I must decide whether to take the ferry to Korcula, the island just a few kilometers across the sea from Orebic, or head to Trpanj and take the ferry to Ploce from where I then would ride the coast to Split. Decisions.

To get to Dingac, I motor to the tiny village of Potomje, and then through a short and narrow and crudely carved tunnel through the rocky mountain. It dead ends at a vineyard with old vines of Plavac Maili, the indigenous Croatian red grape varietal. For centuries Plavac Mali, a near relative of Zinfandel, or Crljenak Kastelanskij as it’s known in Croatia, has been cultivated on these steep and rocky slopes.

The terrain is so rough and steep that the entire protected region must be tended to and harvested by hand. The growers here cannot use tractors, only donkeys, horses, or mules. It’s nearly harvest time, and the berries I see clinging to the vines are small, look very ripe with some even looking close to raisinating.

It’s no wonder that the grapes get so ripe and give Dingac Plavac Mali alcohol levels pushing beyond 15%. Here the slopes have southwest exposure which during the summer provides these grapes some 15 hours of sun exposure. This combined with its proximity to the Adriatic Sea, which acts as a massive reflector and magnifies the intensity of the sun. The grapes love this, and you will enjoy the wine resulting from these vineyards.

Doc must be loving the slopes of Dingac!

Dingac was the first protected and designated region for Plavac Mali in Croatia. But just down the road where I spent a few days in Postup, the Plavac Mali grapes there get the same exposure and results. It’s grown in other parts of Croatia, but the consensus among wine professionals, that due to the soil, sun exposure, and location, the best Plavac Mali wines come from Dingac and Postup.

I hop off my bike and wander through an almost flat part of the vineyard. The vines are old and gnarly, and the clusters of grapes seem to beg to be picked. Soon, I’m sure these slopes will be filled with workers and animals as the rush to harvest will be chaos to what is now a very peaceful place.

I cannot wait for harvest, and with no time to explore Potomje, it is time to decide where to go next.

From Postup To Orebic & The Boutique Adriatic Hotel

The Boutique Hotel Adriatic and Old Captain Restaurant in Orebic Croation (photo courtesy Boutique Hotel Adriatic)

I usually travel with no plans, no reservations, and no itinerary. So today after packing up, at the suggestion of Antonio and Sabina of the Holiday Adriatic Resort and Mikulic Boutique Winery, I motored my way northwest toward the end of the peninsula to Orebic where the Mikulic family operates a bouquet hotel and a beachfront restaurant.

It’s barely a twenty-minute ride to the bustling town. At about 2,500 full-time residents, it’s the largest town on the Peljesac peninsula. During its heyday in the 19th century, Orebic was a busy shipping port and home to many of the most affluent and vital nautical captains in the world. These maritime legends would sail massive tall ships to Russia, Northern Europe, and the Americas. They would bring the rewards and riches of these trading partners home to Orebic. Much of this part of Europe was under Austro-Hungarian rule at the time. Mostly, the Kingdom of Croatia was subject to the direct Imperial rule of Austria.

I miss the turnoff for the entrance at the eastern part of town, so I make a sharp left and enter from the west. Lining the narrow seaside road are cozy shops and cafes while clusters of pedestrians walk down the middle of the street. I navigate my way to the Boutique Hotel Adriatic at the far end of the road in the eastern part of town. While Antonio and his mother Sabina manage the winery, campsite, guest house and restaurant on the coast east of here, his sister Adriana and father, Igor, take care of the hotel and the adjacent Old Captain restaurant.

The classic wheel window remains at the nearly four-hundred-year-old building which is now home to the Boutique Hotel Adriatic.

Adriana in her mid-twenties is the oldest sibling of the Mikulic clan. With a warm smile, sparkling eyes, and long brown hair, Adriana is waiting for me and greets me after I climb off my motorcycle. The six-room hotel sits on the main road. The restaurant across the street is tucked on the coast just above a private beach. Both overlook the blue Croat of the Adriatic Sea and the island of Korcula in the distance.

As both Sabina and Antonio referred to the old hotel as “the captain’s house,” I thought I knew what to expect. It wasn’t until Adriana shared its history and the lengthy and costly three-year effort the family invested in restoring it.

Adriana walks to the side of the old three-story building that houses the hotel. Pointing to a wheel window near the roofline, she tells me residents built the building as a church in 1625. For some 250 years, it served the Orebic community as one of its original churches. As the town flourished in the 1800s, the city built a more prominent church and converted the building into a schoolhouse.

The hotel is packed with authentic relics from one of the last tall ships to sail from here. This porthole window converted to a mirror is just one example.

The lobby is a great place to lounge, and in the cooler winter months, it serves as home to the “Old Captain” restaurant.

It remained the town schoolhouse until World War II when it was converted once again; this time into a home for the poor. Years later the building fell to disrepair, the plumbing, and electrical failing. It lay vacant until about ten years ago when Igor bought the old building. When he shared his excitement about closing the deal, it disgusted his mother, who thought he was crazy. “You bought the ugliest building in Orebic,” she told him.

Still, Igor had a vision and a plan. With a passion for Orebic’s history and in respect for its heritage, Igor long desired to build a ‘captain’s house.’ When Orebic’s sea captains ruled the maritime and sailed tall ships all over the world. Then, the seafront was lined with the opulent homes of these sailing captains and their exotic gardens. So the Mikulic family set out to recreate one of those homes and by doing so to pay homage to Orebic’s infamous sea captains.

Adrianna leads me into the nearly 400-year-old building that now is home, for the second year in a row, earned the coveted Adrian Award for the best small, family-run hotel in Croatia. The small 4-star boutique hotel has only six guest rooms, three with balconies and all overlooking the Adriatic.

The romance and adventure of tall-ship sailing grace the walls of the hotel.

The ground floor serves as the lobby, and lounge with a large fireplace. During the winter and cold months, this also serves as the restaurant. Adriana shows me a vintage photo from the 19th century. It’s a group portrait of many of the wealthy captains who once lived in Orebic. “All of these guys sailed the world,” she explains. “And brought their riches back to Orebic.”

Other vintage photos grace the walls of the lobby and the classic staircase leading to the upper floors and guest rooms. They tell the story of Orebic and the life of its residents in a different time.

Targeted at couples looking for a romantic getaway, The Adriatic Hotel adheres to a strict no children or adults only policy. The hotel exudes understated elegance. Instead of room numbers, the name of a famous ship identifies each guest room.

The hotel feels like a comfortable museum where you can touch, lounge, and relish in an environment surrounded by authentic relics and antiques from one of the last tall ships to sail from Orebic.

Adrianna shows me a couple of the rooms on the second floor. Some make use of the original 17th century stone walls of the hotel where beautiful crown moldings and the dark woods used in the flooring and furniture soothe and warm up the room.

Many rooms come with jacuzzi tubs.

Some rooms feature a four-poster bed with a sheer fabric-draped canopy. She sits on one bed and tells me a story about one of the wealthiest families in Orebic whose only son fell in love with the wrong girl. That is, a girl from a family his parents would not approve. He left Orebic with the girl and gave up the family fortune. This hotel is full of stories. In each room is an elegant folio that features information and the story about the ship from which they named the room.

Adriana is animated and exudes passion as she tells me the story of her family hotel in Orebic, Croatia.

The “Stari Kapetan” or “Old Captain” restaurant sits directly across the hotel and above a beach with cozy lounge chairs that sit under bamboo umbrellas. Each of these is reserved and for the exclusive use of hotel guests. Each spot is also identified by the name of the corresponding guest room.

The restaurant features modern takes on classic coastal, or Dalmatian cuisine using locally sourced fish, meats, and produce from around the Peljesac peninsula. Tables hug the coastline while the entire restaurant is designed to evoke the feel of a ship’s lounge.

At one end is the helm where a life-sized mannequin of an old captain, classically dressed in a captain’s cap and standing next to a classic ship’s steering wheel At the other end of the restaurant is another mannequin of his sweetheart. The two are standing facing each other in reverence to the captain’s dance, where the captain and his sweetheart move closer to each other and then back as the dance progresses.

For a fleeting moment, I thought I should ask Adrianna for a dance lesson. Instead, we sit down and talk about travel. She shares her brother’s, Antonio, passion for travel yet she seems more spirited and footloose. Adriana still studies in school, she aims for an upper graduate degree in economics. When she’s not working and studying she likes to travel to the wine regions of the world.

This opens up more discussion about my recent travels and the book I’m working on. I share my route with her and some of the regions I’ve already explored. When I mention that I’ve been traveling to wine regions and list some countries I’ve visited so far. When I mention Montenegro, she interrupts me.

“Plantaze is my favorite wine,” she says flashing a smile. “The Stari Podrum,” Adriana says looking for a reaction. It’s the top of the line offered by the largest winery in Montenegro. I love that wine too.

“Oh, you like wine?” I ask her.

Without hesitation, she tells me, “I like good wine.”

Orebic’s economy, like most of Croatia’s coastal cities, is driven by tourism. Here business is seasonal, usually April through September or October. Yet the Adriatic Hotel is the only hotel open all year long. This keeps the Mikulic family busy. New projects such as the winery demand more time, money, and attention from what is already a nearly twenty-four-hour workday. And with the scarcity of skilled labor due to the migration of young people to other European countries, running these hospitality businesses is even more demanding. It motivates Antonio and Adriana, the next generation, and they seem genuinely excited to continue to grow the business.

Every day at lunch the tight-knit family of four meet here at the “Old Captain” for a family lunch. “It’s the only time we can talk to each other,” Adriana explains. With all the time they spend working each day, it’s at this ritual daily lunch, she tells me, they can check in with each other.

Soon her mom, Sabina, shows up. I look at my watch. It’s lunchtime. They invite me to join them. I want to accept as I enjoy the energy of this family’s passion and commitment to hospitality and service, the family passion. But they’ve been so generous with their time, I don’t want to interrupt what I know is precious family time, so I decline.

Sabina and Adriana, mother and daughter, one-half of the family that serves guests here in Orebic, Croatia and in Mokolo on the Peljesac Peninsula.

I hope on my motorcycle and make my way to my next Croatian destination.

Where? I don’t know. I’ll let the wind take me.

See you there soon.

Finding Treasures and Possibilities on the Pelješac Peninsula in Croatia

I love the European signs indicating when you arrive in a village or town, and when you leave, like this sign that I’m just a meter or so from existing the town limits of “Ston”. I loved my time in Ston and Mali Ston, and this pass through I barely have time to stop, save to capture this shot. Doc is loaded, battery charged and clutch cable ready for my journey north, east, south, and west.

Mikulic Boutique Winery & Adriatic Holiday Resort

Traffic and big trucks torment me as I wind my way back north to the Pelješac peninsula. Yesterday I connected with a young winemaker whose family for three generations crafted wine from the venerable Plavac Mali, a grape varietal only found here in Croatia.

Since breaking through the Bosnia border to Croatia just over a week ago, I’ve savored and enjoyed Croatian wines made here in southern Dalmatia. The whites, reds, and rosés are inspiring and exciting. With its southwesterly exposure, rocky soil, and proximity to the Adriatic, the Pelješac peninsula is a near-perfect grape growing region.

The road clings to the steep cliffs. There are too few straightaways and too many southbound cars making it difficult to pass. I yearn for the spirit of the open road, with nothing ahead of me, and no vehicles in my rearview mirrors. Little islands dot the Adriatic like spots on Dalmatian dogs. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why they named this the Dalmatian coast. Or does it?

When I reach the turnoff for the Pelješac Peninsula, I pass the road to Mali Ston. I want to stop in and say hi to Mr. Kralj and thank him once again for his hospitality and friendship. But I’ve promised Antonio Mikulic of the boutique winery Mikulic here on the Pelješac I’d be there earlier, rather than later.

In Ston, I stop to use one of the few ATMs on the Peninsula and then motor north toward Orebic. Just outside of Ston the traffic fades, and the road opens. I breathe free, flip up my face shield and roll the throttle as my bike, Doc, speeds forward. Fertile, terraced vineyards climb gentle slopes, and farmhouses dot the roadside. I downshift, slow, and putt through a little settlement of Metohija where tucked at the bottom of a craggy hillside sit a cluster of stone houses. As I continue to roll, I notice signs for wineries, Androvic, Milos, and pass a small market.

I make a note to myself as I pass a turnoff for Dingac, a designated appellation for growing Plavac Mali grapes, to return and ride through the tunnel that takes cars to the steep and rough terrain—home to vineyards from where some of Croatia’s best red wine comes from.

Looking down on the Milulic vineyard, winery and the beautiful Dalmatian coast—a great place to spend a night while exploring the peninsula and the wines of Postup

It’s 4 pm when I get to Mokolo. I make a sharp left turn and drive down a steep driveway toward the sea. The driveway carves its way through a vineyard, olive trees and past a few stone buildings until it ends at the parking lot of the Holiday Resort Adriatic and Mikulic boutique winery. I park next to another BMW GS motorcycle with Italian plates.

I’m here to meet winemaker Antonio Mikulic, and learn about his wine, family and the region. Antonio is busy when I arrive, but his mother, Sabrina, offers to take me to the winery and through the vineyard.

“I know little about wine,” she admits. Though dressed casually in shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals and wearing her auburn hair in a bob that frames her delicate face, she evokes an air of understated elegance as she steps behind the bar in the new winery and tasting room. She keeps apologizing for her English, though I understand her. She asks me if I speak German as it would be easier for her. I don’t.

She pulls a bottle of wine off the shelf, puts her reading glasses on, looks at the label, grabs a corkscrew and pulls the cork from the bottle. She pours wine into the glass, sniffs, smiles at me and continues.

“The winery is new, we opened March 2nd last year” she explains, as she pours me a glass of the family’s Postup, a deep and dark red wine made from Plavac Mali grapes. We toast, I ask her if I can take her photo, she insists on taking her glasses off before I do.

“Antonio knows more,” Sabina notes. “I work with the apartments and campground,” she shares. The Holiday Resort Adriatic includes this winery, a hotel with apartments, a campground, beachfront restaurant, swimming pool, and beach.

Sabina sips the Mikulic Postup, closes her eyes and contemplates. She tells me she knows little about wine, but her expression tells me more.

Here in the winery, they make wine, Rakija, and olive oil. She points to a sparkling new industrial meat carving machine, designed to carve whole legs of pork, like prosciutto. “Antonio wants this machine,” she tells me, “This is very expensive, about six thousand Euros. She points to the hind leg of a hog hanging from the ceiling. “This is the best,” she explains, “from our friend who has a farm, it’s all natural, no pesticides.” She tells me that tourists come to the winery taste wine, try the prosciutto-like cured ham, and other delectables.

Sabrina explains that her father-in-law, now 84 years old used to make the wine, but only for the family’s three restaurants and for personal consumption. He never bottled the wine until recently. In 2012, his wife passed away, but just two years ago he found another woman.

“He’s in love again,” Sabrina shares with a roll of her eyes and a smile, “Now he doesn’t have time for making wine.” So when Antonio returned home from Zagreb where he studied hospitality business, he discovered a new love—making wine—and learning from his grandfather.

She points to a photo on the wall of the winery, it’s Antonio and his grandfather in the vineyard. The winery wreaks history, and due to artifacts and several antiques, it feels like a museum. Even though the building is new, it has a rustic atmosphere due to dark woods and several artifacts, including an amphora, a winemaking relic from a shipwreck in the Adriatic, old wine barrels, and an antique wine press.

This photo graces one wall of the Mikulic Boutique Winery on the Pelejac Peninsula in Croatia. It’s Antonio with his grandfather—the inspiration for his venture into winemaking and wine appreciation.

“One year ago,” Sabina reveals, “Grandfather tells me, ‘I’m a happy man.’” Her father-in-law never cared for school, but always was passionate about making wine. He said, “In my life, I have had three, five, or maybe seven very special days. One of these days is when I bought this wine press.”

He bought the antique press when he was 24 years old, sixty years ago. It was the first major purchase he made once he earned money. Even sixty years ago the press was old—real old. It dates back about three-hundred years old, about the last time this area was under Venetian rule. Until a few years ago, he still used it to press grapes harvested from the family vineyard.

This wine press, used by her father-in-law until just a few years ago dates back some 300 years old to the time of the Venetians here in Croatia.

We talk about her family. Her husband and daughter manage a boutique hotel and restaurant about 10 kilometers northwest of here in nearby Orebic. She and Antonio manage the winery, hotel, campground, and restaurant here. They also have a scuba diving center, a fishing boat, kayak rentals, and water skiing.

“Antonio work too much,” she tells me in slight broken English. “He used to have a girlfriend, nice girl, I like her. But they break up. Sad,” her eyes close, her posture shifts uncomfortably. “I hope they get back together.”

“In ten days Antonio will begin Harvest,” Sabina explains as we exist the winery and walk up the driveway to the vineyard. She shows me some old vines and ripe grapes. Olive trees line the other side of the driveway, and the vineyard climbs up the steep mountain on the other side of the main road.

Later, Antonio tells me that the grapes and vines up there are much smaller and older. The vineyard is about thirty to forty years old, these are the original vines.

I walk back toward my bike, reception and through the campground to the restaurant. Several tables are neatly tucked on a few levels under thatched-roofed palapas, among rocks, several are jutting into the Adriatic. On the lower level, sunbathers lie around a swimming pool. The setting is stunning on a rock cliff some twenty feet above the surf.

While the wine is outstanding, the food served at this stunning location is off the charts.

Antonio joins me at a table overlooking the Adriatic. It’s quiet, save the muted crying of a baby, probably in the campground. He is handsome, young, and with commanding energy, as he jokes with customers, directs his staff, and tends to my curiosity.

The best part is, he’s only twenty-three years old.

“Are you hungry, Allan?” I nod. “What you like?” I acquiesce.

“I like most anything.” Folding the menu and place it in front of him, I tell him, “You decide.”

Antonio and his team at the Adriatic Holiday Resort source carefully cured ham, like prosciutto from Parma, from local organic farmers.

He gets up to tend to business in the kitchen. A waiter places a plate of sliced prosciutto, olives, and other snacks in front of me. I’m sure the cured ham is from the all-natural farm his mom told me about earlier.

“You must be thirsty,” Antonio senses as I grab another piece of ham. “White or red?”

“I always like to start out with white, but end up with red,” I describe my dinner wine preference and practice.

I’m surprised when the waiter brings us a non-labeled carafe of white wine and a bottle of sparkling water.

“We don’t make white wine,” Antonio explains. We buy this wine from our neighbor. He fills a glass about half full from the carafe. He then unscrews the cap to the sparkling water and fills the rest of the glass, mixing it with the wine, with sparkling water. I have to carefully compose myself, hide for a moment my horror.

I imagine this is the guy who at 23 years old is making wine from a multi-generational vineyard here in Postup, one of the best wine-growing regions in Croatia, and he is watering down his wine. To me, this is desecration.

“This is gemišt,” he tells me. I’m still dumbfounded, as this is the first time since traveling I’ve seen winemaker water down his wine.

“Is that the grape,” I ask assuming Gemišt must be a white wine varietal.

“No, this is what we call a mix,” he explains referring to the loose translation of the word. “When it is hot, we like to mix our wine with water.” Later I learn that some Croatians do this with red wine where they mix it with still water and call it bevanda. It’s like a wine spritzer, once popular in America before my country’s palate warmed to the notion of quality wine. “You try?” he asks.

I tell him I’d like to first try the wine unadulterated. It’s okay, at best. Fair. I would instead, like to try a white wine from the nearby island of Korcula, preferably from a bottle, but I’m the guest. After finishing half the glass, I grab the sparkling water and fill my glass. I’ll drink the gemišt.

“I don’t like beer,” Antonio tells me, “this is like beer for me. Cold and refreshing. This is table wine. Many people drink white wine with water.”

I follow suit. When in Rome…

I disclose my dirty beer secret, “I like beer after a long hot ride on the motorcycle. But when I’m home, I hardly ever drink beer. Rose,” I explain, ”is like beer for me.” We toast to our common ground, filling up our glasses with a bit of white wine and then topping it with a good dose of sparkling water.

“Next year I would like to make a white wine,” Antonio tells me. “I will buy grapes from Korcula and make small production of Posip,” he explains mentioning the white wine from Korcula I honestly wanted to try. Next year I must return. “My grandfather makes white wine, only about 200 liters a year, but just for himself.” I want to ask him if he mixes it with sparkling water, but bite my tongue instead.

“Making red wine is easy,” Antonio says. “If you have a good vineyard, good grapes, good position, you can make good red wine with your eyes closed,” he speaks with confidence. “But white wine?” He pauses. “This is much more complicated.” He tells me it’s hard to find expensive white wine in Croatia, but good red wine will command higher prices.

While there are hundreds of years of history of winemaking here, most of the wine was not of good quality. Beyond what people made for their own consumption the would haul the grapes to the port in Orebic and sell and ship the wines to Italy, Greece, and beyond. The buyers knew the position of the vineyards here in Mokolo, Postup were higher quality and would pay more per kilo for the grapes from here than from where his grandfather was born.

Sometimes, buyers rejected the lesser quality fruit. So, at seventeen years old, Antonio’s grandfather moved to this village to work in the vineyard. It was here, on this property he met Antonio’s grandmother. After a year they got married.

They were very poor, and for the first few years, they lived in the barn with the cows and the sheep. “There was no swimming pool either,” I joke. Antonio laughs. He’s giddy when he tells the story. And when he laughs. his voice raises a pitch and his eyes squint, and he rocks back and forth in his chair.

They built one room, then added another. Then they built a house. Soon Antonio’s father was born. His father liked to fish, and when he was older, he became the grill master of the area, opening a small restaurant with just four tables in front of their house. Today the Mikulic family lives and breathes hospitality. Everyone in the family works for the family business.

Antonio admits that at first he did not like, nor drink red wine. But after returning from hospitality school in Split and Zagreb, his grandfather asked him to help him in the vineyard and with making wine. They had to truck the grapes 15 kilometers down the road where they could make and store the wine. At the time, his grandfather never bottled the wine. He served it in a carafe as ‘open wine’ in the family restaurants.

The stunning sea and cliffside restaurant, pool and much more of the Adriatic Holiday Resort and Mikulic Boutique Winery in Mokolo Croatia. 

“When I eventually try my grandfather’s wine—red wine—the lights went on,” Antonio reveals the illumination and epiphany he felt when he realized the beauty of the family vineyard.  He realized why his grandfather obsessed and lived with a passion for grape growing and winemaking.

“My grandfather spends every day in the vineyard,” he tells me. “Though nowadays the doctor tells him not to. But he is old man, doesn’t listen, doesn’t want to change.”

His grandfather explained that due to the rocky soil, south facing position and steep terrain of the vineyard, and its proximity to the sea, the wine made from the Mikulic vineyard is perhaps the choicest in Postup and one of the best on the entire peninsula. His realization not only fired up his passion and appreciation for red wine—but also the possibilities for the family vineyard.

Antonio leans closer as a waiter brings me my next course, an octopus salad. This is a traditional recipe for the area, but different from I’ve had before. It is less salad and more like a ceviche, though the octopus is parboiled, not cooked in citrus. It’s fresh, clean, and a delightful pairing with my spritzy wine cocktail.

“Croatians don’t like to put lemon too much on food,” he tells me.

Still leaning forward, and almost whispering, “Now I must go study winemaking,” he tells me. “I want to go, but I don’t want to go. He giggles, rocks back and forth.

As I gaze around the restaurant, it’s hard not to notice the elaborate stonework, from the flooring and walkways to the staircases and the beautiful patio that surrounds the pool perched high on the cliff. I remember walking through the campground with its level campsites, complete with electrical hookups, fire rings and all shaded under mature trees. Then there’s the winery, with its high-ceiling, wood beams, attention to detail everywhere, and in the ancient artifacts.

“My father makes most everything,” Antonio tells me, “practically all by hand.”

When Antonio graduated from school and chose to take over winemaking from his grandfather, to support him, his parents secured the money and invested in the winery, to continue the family tradition.

Fresh, crisp, and tasty, the octopus salad is the perfect complement into my foray into gemišt—don’t tell my wine geek friends, please!

As we talk, I dig further into my octopus salad, tasting the sea and fresh ingredients with each bite. I confide in Antonio that when I contacted him, I did not consider that my experience here on the Adriatic would be much more than just vines, wines, and a winery.

You are ready for red wine,” Antonio’s eyes widen, he flashes a bigger smile as he pulls the cork from his signature wine, the “selection,” the “Don Josip.” He pours me a glass. The aromas of dark berries, cherry, mocha and a hint of eucalyptus explode from the glass. I sip. It’s mouth coating delicious, medium to full-bodied, with good complexity and layers of dark fruit and a hint of earth. It’s lovely.

“When my grandfather made his wine, he put all the juice in the same barrel,” Antonio shares how he came about the “Don Josip Selection.” “When I realized the grapes grown at the top of the hill, on the other side of the road, and were much different from the grapes grown closer to the sea, I asked many questions.” He holds up his fingers and shows me how small the grapes are at the top of the hill.” He then spreads his fingers wider, indicating how much bigger they are at the bottom.

The Don Josip Postup Selection represents new thinking, new ideas, and great wine here in the Postup region of the Pelejac Peninsula in Croatia. In earned the reward of a Gold Medal and placing it into the top 10% of Croatian wines in 2018

“I ask my grandfather why he puts all the grapes together,” Antonio suggests that they separate the grapes and make two red wines. Grandfather is stubbornly hesitant, doesn’t want to change the way he’s been making wine. So Antonio convinces his father to indulge in his experiment. As I listen to his story, I have a hard time believing just a few years ago Antonio didn’t like or drink red wine.

He and his father agreed to experiment with just 100 liters. So, together the two of them went about the laborious process of hand selecting and sorting grape clusters, reserving the smallest and gnarliest looking berries for the new bottling.

The experiment was a success, and it impressed even his grandfather.

“Plavac Mali needs two years before it’s ready to drink,” he explains, referring to the grape variety that goes into making his Postup red wine. Two years, some in barrels, some in stainless. But at least two years.

The following year, Antonio produces almost four-thousand liters of the Don Josip Selection. Before it’s ready, according to his own standards, he enters the wine, only the second vintage he’s ever made, into a Croatian wine competition.

“So I don’t know why, but I send my wine, the Don Josip, to the wine competition after only one year.” He admits it was tasty and drinking just fine, yet he knew “it needed more time.”

“We won the gold medal,” his face glows. “I can’t even believe it!” e’s proud but surprised and humbled, at the same time. The all Croatian wine competition included 410 wines, they bestowed the honor of a gold medal on just 26 of the wines entered, placing his 2016 Plavac Mali, Postup, the Don Josip Selection, in the top seven percent of all Croatian wines.

The waiter drops my next course in front of me as I’m swirling the gorgeous Don Josip Selection Postup Plavac Mali. It’s a whole fish, sea bass, caught today by a local fisherman. Served with grilled peppers, eggplant, and a potato rice pilaf. I tell Antonio I’m a lazy fish eater, preferring filets often over full fish. “I don’t like the bones,” I confide.

“I can eat a whole fish with my eyes closed,” he explains. “Many fish,” he says, “I eat the bones.”

This tasty fish, sadly, was brought to this restaurant just a few hours before the talented chefs grilled it to perfection.

I dig into the fish, it’s cooked perfectly, tastes so fresh and the perfect complement to the conversation and wine. The bones aren’t a problem.

“I have this feeling,” I tell him, while I sit here, it’s like I’m floating in the sea. “I’m drinking the best wine from vineyards just 100 meters away, and dining on fresh fish from this sea, this is an amazing experience, but it’s much more. Like meeting you and your family.”

As the evening continues and our conversation carries on, becomes more spirited, and deep, it occurs to me that at twenty-three years old, Antonio has the wisdom and intellect of an old soul.

Our conversation shifts to change, travel, and openness. These are all big concepts so important to me that often I think they drive me, if not define who I am. Antonio gets it, too.

“My father is a traveler, he’s traveled the world,” Antonio turns serious. “He says if you stay at home you can learn nothing, you cannot see anything new, you cannot see the future of business.” His father encourages him to travel so he can see what other regions and countries are doing.

“For the past two years, I’ve traveled to wine regions,” he gets animated as he talks of his travels. “I look at what they offer, what they have, what there is to see. You have to go, see and experience if you want to grow.”

“If you are doing the same every year, you cannot grow. You must make or do something new every year. When you travel the world, you take ideas from here, there and everywhere.” He says this is not just for business, but for life.

“You can make a blend, that is how you grow, blend from what you learn.”

Antonio sums it up beautifully, “It doesn’t matter where you are, it matters what you do.”

For a moment our conversation devolves to tourism and social media out of control. “My friends always taking selfies when they are here or there. I do not care where you are,” he laughs. “And sometimes they don’t look so good.”

I share with him nausea I experienced from watching people take selfies or smacking me in the face with a selfie stick when I was in Dubrovnik.

“Dubrovnik is something different,” he concedes, “they have tourism 365 days a year. Here, our season is March or April until end of September.” He gets to travel in the off-season.

When we talk about the future of the winery, Antonio reflects for a moment. “Our business is hospitality, for me the winery is a hobby.”

Postup vineyards are uniquely positioned and are south facing, with rocky and harsh soil and terrain and climb up steep hillsides. At Mikulic you can see in thsi photo the terrain and its position to the sea. The Adricatic acts like a massive reflector giving the vines more than 14 hours exposure to the sun during the summer. In 2017 there was a stretch of 100 days without rain, while yields are low, Antonio tells me the quality is amazing.

Antonio’s grandfather has been working the vineyard here and its now 25,000 vines for almost sixty years. Many of the vines are 30-40 years old, some are older. While my grandfather tended to the vines, my father fished. His restaurant started small, just four tables. Today we have three restaurants, two hotels, and a campground. This is our business. He laughs when he asks me, “Do you know what my first job here was?”

I ponder, and answer, “cleaning, right?”

Yes, every day I start with the broom, sweeping. I asked what he did with the money he earned.

“I bought a kayak,” he explains. His kayak was added to the resort’s fleet of rentals. The money earned from the rentals was proportionately split with his father. With that money, he would eventually buy more kayaks. One day he approached his father with an offer to buy his kayaks. At first his father refused, but finally, he gave in.
True to his philosophy and belief, Antonio brings something new to the resort every year. Now they have a dive center, a speedboat for water skiing, and the winery—where he along with his grandfather bottle all the estate wine. None is served in carafes.

“With the wine in the bottle, we can present the wine,” he tells me. I add that you can also get more money for a bottle of wine. He agrees and tells me he could charge even more for his wines, but he won’t.

Stunning seaside tables precariously perched on rocky outcrops make for a perfect hideaway for fresh fish, deep conversation, and relaxation.

“That’s not it, I can charge a higher price tomorrow because our wine is better than ninety percent of other Postup wines.” Antonio wants the wine to get to more people, to know the name. “My grandfather was making wine for man years, but nobody knew his wine. Now it’s my job to get people to know our wine.” With only three bottled vintages, the Mikulic wines are available in restaurants and stores in Dubrovnik, Korcula, and Zagreb. “Slowly our wine is getting known.”

Today the winery produces about 15,000 bottles. Next year Antonio hopes to increase production to 25,000 bottles. “I will never make 300,000 or even 100,000 bottles of wine,” reminding me that this is just a hobby and that their business is hospitality.

“We would like to grow, maybe open another restaurant or hotel,” he expounds on plans. “But we may not be able to. We have a problem finding good people, reliable employees.” This is not the first time I’ve encountered this difficulty. “More people have left Croatia in the past two years than during the war,” his tone turned serious, reflective. If we cannot find employees, we cannot do more business.”

Even with staffing challenges, the family does well, but everyone works hard.

In so many ways, Antonio represents the future of Croatia and the Balkans. He holds no animosity toward who most Croatians feel are their arch enemies, the Serbs, and he’s forging positive change while celebrating the family history and cultural heritage in the vineyard.

“The Serbians, many are much poorer, and when we go there, they want to pay for everything, they are so nice and happy.” It’s warming to hear someone so young appreciate his country’s former foe. It’s a total contrast to the conversation I had with a local when I was holed up in Mali Ston, some 60 kilometers away. Once again, Antonio impresses me with his sapience.

“Serbian girls like Croatian boys,” he tells me.

“Speaking of girls,” I interrupt, “your mother tells she misses your old girlfriend, you broke up.”

Antonio giggles, rocks back and forth, squints, “You know everything! You have only been here for a few hours.” It’s my curiosity, I point out, “I ask lots of questions.”

“I’m okay, it’s okay,” Antonio shrugs off the notion of a girlfriend. He’s young, and I agree that he should focus on his passion. There’s no hurry.

“Your mom tells me you work too much,” I share more. “Work, work, work, she says.”

He laughs. “Yeah, but if you ask my father, he will tell you I don’t work enough.”

He’s funny and giddy as he pours me another glass of the 2016 Don Josip Selection.

When he’s called to the kitchen, I realized I’ve devoured the fish, veggies, and rice. The wine is going down easy, too.

“You must be from California,” I hear an American accent from a few tables away. Soon we’re joined by David, from Boston but who has been living in Milan, Italy since 1985. After I introduce Antonio as the winemaker and a member of the family that owns the restaurant, he pours praise over him, for the food, ambiance, and environment. “I will come back here in the daylight.” David is staying at a nearby guesthouse. Antonio pours us more wine and David’s wife, with their tiny newborn join at the table.

By the time the bottle is empty, and the lights are about to go off we’ve all made new friends and make plans to taste wine, share stories, and learn more about each other.

I realize we’ve been talking for over three hours. We all hug, kiss cheeks, and smile. I climb up the walkway to my room, thinking along the way just how much I love meeting people, listening to their stories, and learning.

What A Difference A Day Makes—The Old Town Dubrovnik Amusement Park

The desperate and decrepid looking remains of the once glorified and revered resort—in its heyday officers from the Yugoslave Peoples Army and its government would wine, dine, and sunbathe—but it was shelled, bombed, and forgotten during the Balkan Wars between 1991 and 1999. A few sunbathers sneak a space on its pristine beach, but the graffiti strewn facade and decaying concrete blocks are a sad reminder of what was once great. A reminder to us all, I guess.

I catch the earliest water taxi to Dubrovnik. On the way, I pass the remnants of the Kupari Resort a former Yugslavia military retreat that catered to the elite of the Yugoslav People’s Army. Built sometime between the two World Wars on prime real estate on a secluded beach just south of Dubrovnik. It was once home to a lavish complex of five hotels. Today, as I gaze and wonder, the Kupari resort is in ruins. In 1991, the Yugoslav Army seemed to take revenge on its former hotel for its offices and shelled the shit of it. I wonder who owns the property today, and will it ever revel in its former glory given the mass influx of tourists the area entertains every year? For now, it looks like what it is, a war-torn reminder of the Balkan apocalypse.

Once again I enter the old town from the south. There’s a fancy yacht complete with a helicopter parked in the smaller harbor. I did not understand when I disembarked, but I would soon learn that there here are at least five cruise ships moored in the northern harbor outside old town Dubrovnik. Today I visit a much different Dubrovnik.

 

If you are of the “cruise-minded” and can afford the likes of a personal cruiser, you can avoid the hordes cramming the Pile Gate at the new harbor, and enjoy a personal and peaceful entrance to the old city via the old harbor and Place Gate. And??? If you need to escape the crowds, it’s always good to secure a cruiser with its own helicopter.

In light of my cynicism, whithc is tied to my tongue in cheek, Dubrovnik is beautiful. I suggest visiting in the winter or early Spring.

What doesn’t change is that the city is gorgeous. It is well preserved, and the stories these walls have seen beg telling. Like the grim reality of the 1667 earthquake that killed more than half its population. Leveling the town sparing only St. Saviour Church, the Revelin Fortress, Sponza Palace and the Lazaretto.

Back then, the leadership of Dubrovnik relied not only on the imposing walls and gates to protect the city. The city created the first quarantine in the world. You see, because its maritime base brought an influx of trade and people from all over the world, those arriving by ship were quarantined in the Lazarettos. They would have to wait outside the walls and inside one of several Lazaretto buildings until cleared for entrance.

Constructed in perhaps the most seismically active area in Croatia, Dubrovnik sits on a tiny peninsula that juts into the aquamarine waters of the Adriatic. Over the years, the city suffered the wrath of destruction, disease, and devastation caused by many earthquakes. In 1520 a smaller quake scared but also spared the city from much damage. Thankful, yet fearful more would come, this quake inspired city leaders to commission a new church. The new church would serve as gratitude to God for saving the city from more damage and death. It was also a prayer seeking a promise from God that the city be free from further destruction. The prayer didn’t work, however. Though much more destruction came from the 1667 quake, the church is one of the few structures that stood after the rumble and the fires.

Next to the St. Saviour Church is the Franciscan Monastery which originally sat outside the city walls. Realizing this was a lousy location, city leadership ordered a new monetary built inside the fortress. Like other buildings, the 1667 earthquake severely damaged the new monastery. Even during reconstruction, the Franciscan Monastery continued to serve patients with one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, continuously operating here since 1317.

Hmmmm. Am I with them, or them, or…? The St. Saviour Church is to the left and the Franciscan Monastery to the right. I’ll find something else to do here in Dubrovnik!

Just across from the Monastery with its legendary pharmacy and library, sits the current tourist information office. This building during the14th and 15th centuries was a convent. It was here that the nuns created and operated the first organized orphanage in all of Europe.

I discover and detail this history about Dubrovnik not because I can indeed get near these historical buildings this morning. I cannot. The throngs of tourists cramming through Pile Gate is astounding. The crush of people entering this city reminds me of crowds lining up to get into Disneyland. Like I did yesterday, most of these tourists, over one million in 2018 so far, will each pay about twenty Euros for the privilege of walking the city walls. Yeah, I guess Dubrovnik is just another amusement park, lined with cafes, souvenir shops, and ATMs.

The $25 million raised by the entrance fee is managed by a nonprofit where all the proceeds go to improving and advancing the old town. This is a luxury, I learn, that no other destination in the Balkans can claim. Support from local and national governments for tourism and historical preservation is minuscule. While some international aid and nonprofit organizations offer assistance, the support and funds typically take years and usually are encumbered by complex policies and bureaucratic minutia.

The Dubrovnik Doves have it better than the Dubrovnik Dunces who arrive by cruise ship, here the cooing birds can get away from and above the crowds.


I escape the crowds down one of the narrow ways that splinter off the main drag, the Stradun. Here I see a man collecting trash and dumping into containers connected to the first motorized vehicle I’ve seen in Dubrovnik, so far. It seems some money is well spent and town leaders recognize the importance of keeping the amusement park clean and tidy.

I round a corner as I wander the maze of side streets and alleys when a clueless tourist, staring up in the sky, jerks her body around and knocks me in the face with her selfie-stick. “Did you get the shot?” I ask. She doesn’t speak English and sheepishly turns and walks away.

I look up, and instead of staring and myself through my phone, I realize that most of the buildings lining these alleys are three stories. There are no billboards, obnoxious signs, or other hints of consumerism gone mad, save the “Game of Thrones” displays in street-side shop windows. Thanks to UNESCO mandated rules, the exterior of buildings are similar, and signs for shops and streets all adhere to the same style.

 

Here in Dubrovnik, dating back to the 14th century where shipowners operated a business on the ground floor, lived and slept on the second floor, and cooked and dined on the third or top floor. Even back in the 14th century, the Republic of Dubrovnik enforced zoning or building safety code practices. It supervised construction so that kitchens only be built on the top floor in the event a fire would break out.

The more I try, the more I relent. I look for solace and points of historical or artistic interest, anything colorful, textured, and compositionally interesting to point the lens of my camera. But everywhere I look, every tacit turn I make, every stumble on these streets paved in marble, all I find are crowds. Why not, I wonder, just take their photos?

The banner waving, umbrella-toting, and flag flying tour guides and cruise directors lead the hordes of tourists through the city. Some wearing bad microphones connected to tinny speakers, others try to exercise decorum fit their passengers with receivers with earpieces while they spout into transmitters. Perhaps less invasive, but still intrusive.

The amusement park is at capacity today. I long to get away from the crowds, so rather than wait in line for the thrilling ride up to the top of Mount Srd on the Dubrovnik Cable Car, I hitch a ride with a few other travelers. Up here the views are breathtaking. And for the first time today, I look down at the city, and I cannot see a tourist.

Follow me, the Game of “stones” is just around the corner. This is a stone town, as for Thrones, that begs a discerning palate.

Oh, there are tourists up here with me taking in the same view. After I snap a handful of pictures, I notice a beautiful woman standing nearby. Her lips glisten in the late morning light which also makes her amber eyes sparkle. The breeze tosses her hair in her eyes. With her slender and French-manicured fingers she delicately moves it back. She’s different from anyone else up here. She’s not holding a phone or a camera. Instead, she peers down on the old town, seemingly in contemplation or meditation. I cannot escape the siege she has on me and my mind. I move closer, and then openly share with her my curiosity.

“Hi,” I brake the ice. “It’s stunning isn’t it?” She agrees.

“I have to say I’m impressed. You are the only person on this mountain not taking pictures, selfies, or glued to a device. Good for you.”

She smiles, her eyes capture the light. She moves the hair from her face.

“My boyfriend,” she points to a young guy who has jumped the fence and is precariously standing on a rock taking a selfie. “He’s taking the pictures.” She glances at him, smiles.

I am sorry. This guy is an idiot. His girlfriend patiently since behind the barrier he climbed. He’s taking a photo of himself, the inevitable and now ubiquitous look at me and where I am a selfie while leaving his soft-spoken and gentle beauty behind. He’s with himself, and the old town, I guess—not with her.

Personally, I wonder if he will fall. He’s taking a picture of himself. Speculating for a moment, I think his girlfriend would be a much better subject—on this side of the fence. The guy moves to the left, then backward. He seems to struggle to get the shot. For a moment, I reflect on the young woman who fell to her death while taking a selfie on the cliffs in Greece, high above Porto Katsiki beach in Lefkada. I turn to the woman once more.

“I hope he gets good shots.” I walk away, and for a moment I think to myself I should take her picture. It’s part of the story. Would that be weird? I ponder but keep walking.

Dubrovnik is beautiful. Despite my brush with selfie-obsessed, “Game of Thrones” fanatics, and ATMs, I feel good about my time here in Dubrovnik and am pleased and have been well-rewarded for taking a second day in the old town.

 

Do I Need To Go To Dubrovnik?

Old Town Dubrovnik—even as touristed as it is, it is a must visit (one day) while in Croatia.

Last night, the battery was still too weak to crank the engine after dinner. The good news is that there was a slight charge as the instrument and operating lights work. After breakfast, I recruited two bellhops who helped me push and jump start the bike. I didn’t need two, as with both pushing unevenly, I fought to keep balance. So we shoved Doc up to the top of the driveway, and just one of the bellman ran while pushing me down the driveway. I popped the bike into second gear, and Doc started right up. To charge the battery, I took a scenic cruise down the coast and back.

I must also find a room for the night, the Sheraton is sold out. Turn out that Sheraton owns a couple apartments down the street. They don’t honor points for these properties, but the location was perfect and though more expensive than I’m used to paying, saving time is more important than saving a few kunas (the Croatian currency) this time around.

Now it’s time to explore the old town of Dubrovnik. For the past few weeks, I’ve listened to warnings from other travelers. They warned me Dubrovnik is overcrowded with tourists. I prefer to travel off the beaten track, but some places are mandatory, like Machu Picchu, Rome, Barcelona and Paris—all very touristed locations I’ve visited in the past. Then again, I’ve traveled to Lalibela, Lesotho, and Talampaya—places not well known.

I’ve got to visit Dubrovnik at least once.

The good news is I can take a water taxi to the old town and enter it from the eastern, or Ploce Gate and away from the hordes entering through the busier western Pile Gate by boat, bus, or plane.

For much of Dubrovnik’s over 800-year history, the only way into the walled fortress was through one of these gates. Though in 1907, the Austro-Hungarian’s build a third, the Buda Gate.

The long wooden skiff that ushers visitors from the southern beaches and resorts pulls up to the small loading dock near my hotel. Another couple is waiting to board with me, and we motor on into the Adriatic, stopping once to pick up passengers at another beach and then moved north toward Dubrovnik.

The approach from the South is impressive. First, we whiz by Lokrum Island, home to a monastery and botanical gardens and then as we motor closer to the old port, the imposing  St. John Fortress, ominous towers and massive city walls tell of Dubrovnik’s medieval past.

Travelers had warned me about Dubrovnik. First, in Greece, they advised me of maddening crowds. Then, a week ago the Czech travelers said while they enjoyed the beauty and history, the tourists and rampant kitschy consumerism left them with a bad taste. They lamented the possibility of spending more time in Albania had they not wasted precious travel days here.

The boat drops us near the Ploce gate, and soon I’m walking down the Stradun, Dubrovnik’s main promenade, or street. There are no cars, not even an electric cart. It’s about 4pm, and while it’s near the end of the busy tourist season, I’m told Dubrovnik is experiencing longer and longer seasons. One vendor tells me that in a year or two, there will be no off-season. The tourists come all year round.

I walk across the polished stones of the Stradun. Behind me is Ploce gate where I entered, and about 300 meters east is Pile Gate. Along the way, I’m taken back by the number of ATMs lining the Stradun. I count. By the time I reach the Onofrio Fountain outside Pile Gate, I’ve run out of fingers and toes—over 20 cash machines in just 250 meters. I think that’s more than I saw in the entire country of Bosnia.

 

The main “drag” in Old Town Dubrovnik, The Stradun leads visitors from the two main gates that in Medieval Times were controlled by drawbridges over a moat. These days they might consider such controls again, especially when the place gets overrun with clueless cruise ship passengers.

 

 

Seems these days visitors are drawn to Dubrovnik for fantasy and fake history, Games of Thrones tours outnumber the historical.

Interested in a walking tour, the spunky and cheerful local offers, “I can tell you all about the ‘Game of Thrones‘ locations here.

To get a better understanding of the history of the old town and the Dubrovnik and Regusa (Italians were here too) Republic, I look for a guide offering a historical walking tour. The smartly dressed woman with knee-high boots, wearing ruby red lipstick, and carrying a bright orange umbrella tells me she’s about to start a tour featuring sites from the HBO hit series, “Game of Thrones.” Yes, she tells me they will also cover basic history. When I ask her if I can join just the history portion, she points out that the two subjects flow together. I think, “great,” you get both fake history with some crumbs of actual history. I only want the crumbs.

I’ve seen a few episodes of “Game of Thrones,” as I have little time to watch or stream television. What I learn is that many memorable scenes of the popular series were filmed here in Old Town Dubrovnik, or “Kings Landing” as it’s known in the show. To be sure, Dubrovnik has always been a popular Balkan tourist destination. However, since the secret about “Game of Thrones” got out, the number of tourists visiting Dubrovnik has more than doubled over the past few years.

On the one hand, I find it offensive a fantasy television show drives interest and tourism in what, on its own, is this fabulously well-preserved medieval town with a rich history of its own. Who needs fiction? Yet, in the windows and on shelves of tourist shops, it’s hard to find anything but junky and disposable “Game of Thrones” kitsch.

It would be admirable if tourists drawn to this town because of the show would leave Dubrovnik with a fresh awakening and interest in history. I can fantasize, but there are more “Game of Thrones” tours and information than the alternative.

I’m amazed that I have the Dubrovnik City Walls nearly to myself as I cruise the two-kilometer path that offers stunning views of the city below and the sea afar.

 

Most of the roofs of Old Town Dubrovnik look spanking new, the bombing by the Serb-backed Yugoslav People’s Army destroyed most of them, but there seem to be a few relics of a yester-year.

Outside the walls you can find a cold beer and a view of Lokrum Island or a place to swim and cool the gnarly heat of late summer.

Lokrum Island is home to botanical gardens and a Monastery. If you’d rather not make the trip, hang out next to the lookout tower and have a beer and a salad.

Even outside the city walls, Dubrovnik sits in a stunning setting.

Tourism aside, I walk atop the two kilometers of walls that for hundreds of years protected this city. From here I can see to the south Lokrum Island, and to the north the St. Lawrence Fortress which sits on a bluff outside these walls. I’m alone as I walk the walls, surprisingly. Peering down on the Stradun, the city is quieter than I expected, given the fair warnings from other travelers.

Some walls reach eighty feet high and in places are twenty feet thick. Surrounding the entire city, at one time, was a moat. Drawbridges hoisted up at night with large chains controlled entrance and exit of the city. Along the Adriatic, the walls drop into the sea atop Dubrovnik’s rocky shore. From the land and sea, the walls protected this city from attack for hundreds of years.

As I’ve traveled the Balkans and traveled many miles to explore and gaze upon fortresses built by Romans, Venetians, and the Ottomans, here in Dubrovnik with its clear medieval routes and a diverse mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, the city seems absent of any Ottoman influence.

The views above the city from its fortified walls is stunning.

While the Ottoman’s wreaked havoc on the Balkans and at various times of its five hundred year history in these parts, it invaded, occupied or ruled every square inch of land from Greece to Slovenia—except Dubrovnik. Due to its proximity to the Adriatic Sea, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the 13th Century during the Fourth Crusade, Dubrovnik, then known as Regusa, was invaded by the Venetians and developed into the Venetians southern Adriatic naval base. Dubrovnik negotiated a degree of independence from the Venetians by allowing unfettered access to its port.

The Republic never had a strong military, but where it lacked in firepower, it more than made up in diplomatic skills. Later, in the 14th Century, Dubrovnik (the Republic of Ragusa at the time) became an autonomous republic after the Venetians signed the Treaty of Zadar with Hungarian King Louis I,  which forced them to abandon any claims along the Adriatic.

Some one-hundred years later when the Ottomans were collecting land in the region, using its legendary diplomatic skills the Republic of Dubrovnik signed with them a treaty that gave Turks access to its port and opened them to trade along the Adriatic. The Republic of Dubrovnik managed the trade business for the Ottomans. This provided Dubrovnik additional benefits such as access to trade along the Black Sea, tax exemptions, and protection granted by the Ottoman Empire.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, Dubrovnik enjoys international awareness, investment, and plenty of tourists. The old town is well preserved though in 1667 a massive earthquake destroyed almost every building in the town. Then, in during the Siege of Dubrovnik in the old town suffered massive shelling for two months by the Yugoslav People’s Army. It astonishes me that our humanity, that people, would level attacks against an ancient site so rich in history. During the siege, many buildings burned blew up or crumbled. Gazing down from these walls into the web of small streets and alleys that crisscross the tiny walled peninsula, I realize how bright and shiny the orange roofs appear. Most were re-roofed due to fires and damage from the siege.

Even as a world heritage site (UNESCO) life goes on and people live their lives in the beautiful old town of Dubrovnik.

This afternoon the old town is devoid of passengers from cruise ships. Only a few small groups wander the Stradun. Though I notice one ship docked in the eastern harbor, I surmise they must have all left the city before I got here. I’m lucky. No wonder it’s so quiet.

I continue my walk on the walls. Huge towers on the corners of the walled fortress dominate Dubrovnik’s presence. On the southwest side of town, just outside the sea walls, sunbathers and swimmers find refuge from the heat and the crowds. After circling the entire city, I climb back downtown. I see even more ATMs on the side streets, but also find that the cafes, boutique shops, and polished marble pathways positively endearing. There’s not much to do in Dubrovnik, save wander around, imagine the city in a different time, and watch people.

I find a seat at a cafe at the far end of the Stradun, near the clock tower and watch people and relax while sipping a cold draft beer. The mix of languages from others sitting nearby piques my curiosity. Before I can decipher and locate the language and dialect, the screeching and squeaking of dozens of bats overhead steal my attention. It’s dawn, and they’re playfully flying high above the Stradun, and yet those strolling the promenade or sipping coffee at the cafes don’t seem to notice. I raise my camera but feel it’s futile, yet I try to grab a photo that might capture the moment.

Don’t worry if you’re short on cash (kuna) no need to walk more than a few meters to find an ATM. Crazy!

 

Even in late August, you can find a tad of peace and minimal tourists in Old Town Dubrovnik.

If you don’t want to imbibe in “Game of Thrones” garb, the shops will certainly celebrate and tell stories about the Croatian National football team that came so close to its first World Cup Win—the French beat them in the finals.

Later while wandering the narrow streets, I stumble upon a grand stairway that looks like a scaled-down version of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Though I’m on a wider street, this isn’t the Piazza di Spagna, but a passing tour guide explains that this baroque staircase is knowns as the Jesuit Stairs. They climb to the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuit College. Like most buildings in Dubrovnik, they constructed the church and the staircase after the 1667 earthquake that devastated Dubrovnik. Yes, she mentions, they were modeled after the iconic Spanish Steps in Rome. Just as she’s walking away, she turns around. “Oh, and this is where they filmed “The Walk of Shame” in the “Game of Thrones.”

Hmmmm. Good to know, I guess.

Later I try to get a solo table at one of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Dubrovnik, but they are fully booked. I decide on a more casual option off the main Stradun. I chose Steakhouse Paparazzo due to its location adjacent to the cathedral and proximity to Ploce Gate. When I look at the wine list, I realize that they offer wine from only one producer, Saints Hills Vinaria. I find this odd and question the waiter.

“We have only Saints Hills, here. We have an agreement,” he explains. I question this.

“You cannot have an agreement with other wineries?” I ask. “I think your customers would like to try different Croatian wines.”

It’s okay wine, but my restaurant in Dubronik offers wine from just ONE producer. Uninspring, short-sighted, and riculously stupid policy. Shame on Saints Hills and shame on Steakhouse Paparazzo for not celebrating wines from all over Dalmatia.

My suggestion falls on deaf ears; he doesn’t have a say, anyway. I ask the owner, an older gentlemen, but his English and my Croatian are insufficient to have a more in-depth conversation. So I order a glass at his suggestion and finish my meal.

I just make the last departure on the water taxi. The lights of Dubrovnik and the orange glow of the city walls fade as we head south. The drone of the engine drowns out the otherwise quiet night.

Tomorrow I’ll return to Dubrovnik once more. I guess that means I’ll visit the old town twice before making my way back to the Peljesac Peninsula where I hope to gain a Croatian wine education that goes beyond Saints Hills.

 

Hospitality, Service, and a New Clutch. But Wait! Now The Battery?

The kind and generous Mr. Krajl of Ostrea Hotel helps me get Doc back on the road.

Sunbathers appeared on the docks below my room early this morning. The temperature is already pushing 80 degrees, and I haven’t had coffee. After a refreshing shower, I join the other guests eating breakfast on the patio outside. It’s not long before the waitress brings me coffee and with it a small plastic bag with a new clutch cable. “You’ve been waiting for this,” she asserts. Mr. Krajl will meet you here after 9 AM.

The cable is coiled tightly, and my first thought is that it’s too small. I shrug that off because I don’t remember, and on Saturday I didn’t have much time to inspect it much more than my initial diagnosis. Plus, it’s been quite a few years since I last replaced the cable. It was roadside in Tanzania on a blistering hot day. The original clutch cable lasted about 50,000 miles. At almost 90,000 miles, it looks like the replacement didn’t last as long.

A little after ten o’clock, Mr. Krajl shows up with about an 8-foot trailer hitched to his car. At the souvenir stand where my bike has been parked for the past two nights, he recruits assistance, and we push Doc up the ramp and secure it with a single tie-down. He suggests I sit on the bike while we cruise just two kilometers down the road. “Please go slow,” I ask.

Within a minute of driving toward the mechanic’s shop, it seems Mr. Krajl forgot my request. I’m sitting on the bike with the side stand down, my hands grab the handlebars, and as we roll through a few dips, the bike shakes. I can’t put my feet flat on the base of the trailer, so I brace myself with my feet on the pegs. I swallow hard and hang on.

A few minutes later we pull up to a small concrete building. It looks more like a house than a shop. There’s no sign, and the entrance is down a steep embankment. Inside we meet Antonio. His head is buried under the hood of a Peugeot. The shop is clean, and Antonio dressed in a black t-shirt with black shorts and wearing sandals, hardly has the appearance of a mechanic. But he is; an auto mechanic, not a bike mechanic. He doesn’t speak English, save a few words. But says he understands more than he can speak. I need not explain what we have to do because this is a straightforward fix. I’m just happy we can repair it inside a garage and out of the sun and with proper tools.

We roll the bike off the trailer, and I coast down the embankment and into the garage.

I have one more request. My exhaust is rattling. It’s also too loud. I need to repack the muffler, but this is more than we can do here. Though I’ve arranged with Dooby in Zagreb to fix that later next week, I want to secure the baffle inside to stop the rattling. To do this, he must tap new threads and solder a nut to the inside the end cap.

He’ll be ready to work on the bike once he’s finished with the Peugeot. So I get to work pulling my bags off the bike, remove the old cable, and pull the end cap off the Supertrapp pipe. He tells me to come back in a couple hours, and we’ll finish the repair.

Inside of my Supertrapp exhaust pipe reveals the annoying rattling noise was from a bolt that sheared off due to heat and vibration.

 

Also, the end cap for the exhaust had rattled loose and Antonio had to quicky devise a solution and solder a new bolt to the inside of the end cap.

Though he told me he doesn’t work on motorcycles, Antonio of Mali Ston in Croatia was quick, convenient, and cost-effective.

I use the downtime to download photos, update my journal, and research accommodation options for Dubrovnik. That’s when I realize how expensive Croatia is compared to the other four countries I’ve traveled so far. Typically I like to find a room as close to the downtown area as possible. This way I can park the bike and do my exploring by foot, mass transit, or taxi. For Dubrovnik, I realize, that is not possible. First, there are no vehicles allowed in old town, where I want to be. Yes, there are hotels inside old Dubrovnik, but the only parking options are in public lots outside the old town.

Everything within a reasonable distance of the old town is expensive. My brother Jonathan offers me Marriott points, but the only Marriott property is a Sheraton about 12 kilometers south. Part of the Starwood portfolio of hotels which Marriott purchased for some $13 billion in late 2016, I take only 30 minutes to find the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel in Mlini, Croatia. But there is a problem. Even though Marriott completed the merger two years ago, the consolidation of the points and rewards programs is a problem. It takes several hours and three phone calls to complete my reservation. Even then, the room is only available for one night. I’ll tackle that problem later. With a card key in hand, I go to unload my bike and park it in the Sheraton’s secure parking lot.

Perhaps the nicest digs I’ve stayed while on this journey, though the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera is luxurious it lacks the charm and hospitality of a small hotel like Mr. Krajl’s Hotel Ostrea in Mali Ston.

A few miles south of the Sheraton is the cute village of Cavtat on the Croatian ‘Riviera’ coast south of Dubrovnik.

When I get back to my bike, which is parked just outside the main entrance to the hotel, I realize that I left the key in the ignition and on.

I’m an idiot, I think. My high-powered PIAA led lights have been on too. I’m screwed. My battery is dead. No power, no instrument lights, nothing.

Just when I thought the journey would continue with my new clutch cable and rattle-less exhaust, I dip into a stupid absent-minded move. I want to blame it on the Marriott-Sheraton points debacle, after all, had the check-in been efficient my bike would not have been on for 3 hours. But that’s me looking to blame outside factors. Truth is, it was my bonehead move.

The good news, so I think, is that the battery is new. I replaced it when in Athens last month. It should have the resiliency to rebound after a few hours. If it fails to recover enough amps to crank over, at least it will have a small charge, and with a good push and the slight downhill of the Sheraton driveway, I trust we can jump start Doc. Later I’ll need to go on a long ride without running the PIAA lights to charge the battery.

The doorman tells me it’s okay to leave the bike there for the evening. Tomorrow, I hope, Doc will run again.

Walls, Wine, Oysters, and a Plan

The walls of the Ston Fortress here in southern Croatia are the longest in all of Europe.

I’m in a hotel in Mali Ston, Croatia, but my bike is stranded on the side of the road with a broken clutch cable in Ston, Croatia, just a few kilometers away. I contact Dooby in Zagreb, who is about 700 kilometers away. Between us, we fail to find a replacement cable any closer.

Mr. Kralj and the receptionist at Ostrea Hotel tell me not to depend on the Croatian postal service after I suggest that Dooby could mail me a new cable from Zagreb. Instead, they recommend that Dooby put it on a local bus. I guess the bus service here is more reliable than the post office.


Watch this very short video for a quick update from Ston, Croatia.

Busses from Zagreb take some 12 hours to get to Ston, stopping along the way. We miss the day bus, so Dooby plans on giving the part to the driver of the evening bus. It will arrive in Ston at 4:00 AM. That’s too early, and with no Uber or taxi service in Mali Ston, I will have to get up around 3:00 AM and walk to the Ston to meet the driver. I must not be late as the driver will not wait and there is no formal “bus delivery service.” Dooby simply will ask the driver and I must “tip” the driver when he arrives.

“No don’t worry,” Mr. Kralj comforts me. “I will have the security guard meet the bus.” Relief and so much kindness. I feel better. The new part will be here Monday morning, and Mr. Kralj will meet me with a truck and a trailer, and we’ll take the bike to a garage where we can work on the bike and replace the cable. His hospitality and kindness are overwhelming. He’s busy. I see him running around all day. He runs this hotel, a restaurant, and he is building a new parking lot in Ston. But he goes out of the way to help me.

So with a plan in place, I hike the nearly three-mile (5.5km) length of walls that create the Ston Fortress. For the past several years the community has worked to restore the walls. I pay a few kunas and hike from Mali Ston, up steep inclines and slowly descend. I’m treated to great views of the Bay of Mali Ston, the town of Ston, salt flats, and to the winding roads that head north-west into the vineyards of the Peljesac peninsula.

 

I’m able to walk the Walls of Ston, about three miles around the little town. The community continues to renovate the walls, towers, and other historical buildings within the town.

 

Beyond the walls and town of Ston are salt pans, the oldest in Europe.

There are some forty towers along the length of the walled fortress, and they fly the flag of the former republic, Regusa in Italian, or Dubrovnik in Croatian.

The Walls of Ston once spanned seven kilometers, and long have enclosed and protected the tiny town of Ston. Built in the late 14th century, the fortress insulated the village from invaders after it received independence from the Venetians. This region of Dalmatia stretched from Dubrovnik in the South to Zadar in the north and encompassed some of the smaller islands off the coast. It was known as the Republic of Ragusa (in Italian, or the Republic of Dubrovnik in Croatian), like its famous port city to the South, Dubrovnik, was fortified with defensive walls to fend off the invading Ottomans.

There is no other fortress with walls as long as Ston in the entire European continent. Even more impressive are the forty towers the connect the walls and provide keen outposts for spotting potential intruders. In one tower I spot a group of young Frenchmen who are clearly here to gloat and celebrate their country’s win over Croatia in the World Cup just a few months ago.

It’s hot, and the sun is beaming down. I forgot sunscreen, but I am well covered with a hat and regrettably, long sleeves. Hiking the wall is a good workout, I cannot imagine what it took to build the fortress as it meanders up and down over these steep hills.

In the tiny hamlet of Ston, I check in on my bike to make sure it weathered the night. Then I wander the town and into the Wine Bar Ston where the owner, Dario gives me a quick overview of Croatian wines and especially those from here on the Pelijac peninsula.

I check in on my bike, it must sit until Monday when a new clutch cable will arrive by bus—at 4:30 AM.

Later, I hike along the road back to Mali Stone. That evening I take in some of Lidija’s excellent cooking at the Kapetanova Kuca restaurant here, and to taste what makes Mali Ston one of Croatia’s hottest culinary destinations—oysters. My hotel? Ostrea? Yes, that translates to oysters. They are harvesting them a few hundred meters from my room—and my table at the restaurant in the Bay of Mali Ston.

 

The Bay of Mali Ston is famous for oysters, some say the best in Croatia.

 

 

The flag of the former Republic of Ragusa (or Dubrovnik) flies high over the town of Mali Stone (Little Ston) on the Walls of the Ston Fortress here in Croatia.

 

Oyster farmers, restaurants, and locals all take advantage of the fruits of the sea here in Mali Ston.

 

Nice cured and smoked fish selection with some local prosciutto is a good way to start tasting the fruits of the sea here in Mali Ston.

European flat oysters are a specialty here in Mali Ston and the excellent Kapetanova Kuca restaurant.

Every year in March, on St. Joseph’s day, the community holds an Oyster Festival. They celebrate by offering fresh oysters and a variety of cooked oyster dishes such as oyster soup and oyster fritters. They roast, fry, and bake oysters, but I prefer them fresh with a little lemon and a good glass of white wine. Today they serve me what’s known as European Flat Oysters, a specialty and so unique, fresh, and tasty—I’m tasting the Adriatic with each bite.

For my introduction to white wines, I try a crisp and minerally Posip, a white wine from grapes grown here on the Peljesac and on nearby islands such as Korcula. The crisp white pairs nice with the oysters after which I’m served a cheese and cured fish and meat platter of locally caught fish and game here on the peninsula. With some good food and wine in me, I finally relax. Soon I’m having my first Dingac, a deep and ripe red made from teh Plavac Mali grape and grown on the southwest region of the peninsula.

The young waiter is curious about me, a solo diner with an insatiable curiosity for history, wine, and culture. When I tell him I was in Mostar just yesterday, his brow furrows and his tone turns serious.

“There are too many Muslims in Mostar,” he confides. “They are not mellow nor kind either,” he explains. “Did you see all the rockets,” he asks, referring to the Minarets towering above mosques and dotting Mostar’s skyline. “They are fucking up our Mostar,” he appears defeated.

“There used to be more Croats in Mostar, not anymore,” he says.

I ask him who is worse, Muslims or Serbs? Without hesitation he says Muslims. “We now work together with the Serbs, Orthodox Christians,” he explains. “But you look at Mostar, and all you see are rockets.”

He tells me that even though the population of Croats has declined in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Croats living there own the best part of the country, and they refuse to sell property to Muslims. “The Muslines,” he says, “have all the money.”

“Don’t even get me started with Sarajevo,” he tenses up when he drops my bill at the table, and pours me another glass of wine. I forget to ask him why, but I assume he thinks that it’s an influx of Muslims. I wonder. The Ottomans were in this area for over 500 years.

Street art, flowers, and cool windows don this centuries old building in the town of Ston, Croatia.

When I ask him about Slovenia, he says, “we call them cowards.” Slovenia was the first of the former the republics that declared independence from Yugoslavia. Though when I press him about whether he would someday like to see Yugoslavia as one big country again.

“I don’t think it would work today,” he tells me, “though we were a big country, strong, just behind China back in the day.” I’ve struck a sour chord. “All of that is lost as all of us small countries vie for a piece of the pie.”

I ask him if he thinks there is more tension if the war that once divided them is over. “The war never stopped,” he feels, “it’s frozen.” He clarifies, “it’s TNT, waiting to explode.” Every 40 or 50 years we have a war here, now we are waiting.”

I’m waiting here in Mali Ston for my clutch cable. Tomorrow is a new day, and Doc will be mobile once again.

 

From Mostar To Dark Ustaše Memories & Bike Problems

Riding western Bosnia in the Herzegovina region where Croatian flags fly high and the roads twist, wind, and climb to the border.

It’s getting harder to find and shift into neutral. I’m worried. The clutch feels spongy due to a stretched cable. So before taking off, I trade a few messages with Dooby at Lobagola B&B in Zagreb, Croatia. He’ll order a new clutch cable for me and find a shop that can repack the muffler that’s increasingly getting noisier. I’ll explore Southern and Coastal Croatia for a week or then head to Zagreb for bike maintenance.

The ride from Mostar to Croatia winds around karst and limestone mountains and through small towns, and fertile valleys. The narrow road climbs over the hills and in places follows the bends of the Neretva River. It is rough in parts, with loose rocks, potholes, and graffiti-laced road signs. Mostly, it’s desolate. The weather today is mild, and when I ride through a break in the clouds, I feel the warm heat of the sun. There are few cars, and not much else, except scrappy low trees and shrubs and the occasional house—or remains on one.

I notice more Croatian flags than I see Bosnia and Herzegovina. For the first time in a week, I see a new license plate. It’s got the European Union circle of stars on the blue field, but here the country initials read “HR.” I wonder, is that Hungary? I’m wrong. It’s Croatia. I know that seems odd, but in the Slavic language, Croatia is the Republika Hrvatska, or simply Hrvatska (HR).

I’m in Bosnia and Herzegovina but that’s a Croatian flag just ahead; a church in the rearview.

It’s no wonder there are Croatian flags here, during World War II Ustaše Croats declared the land I’m riding through as part of the NDH, or the “Independent State of Croatia.” Right now I’m just a few kilometers from the current EU recognized Croatian border.

The Ustaše Croats were barbaric terrorists. Founded in 1930 by Ante Pavelic, the Ustaše Croatian Revolutionary Organization dedicated itself to achieving independence from Yugoslavia and was motivated by a multi-pronged ideology that blended Fascism, Roman Catholicism, and Croatian nationalism. They dreamed of a “Greater Croatia” encompassing parts of modern-day Serbia and the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina—where I’ve been traveling the past few days.

After the Axis powers (Italians, Germans) invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, the Ustaše got their independent state. Sponsored by the Italians and protected by the Germans, the Ustaše were fiercely Roman Catholic. The group promoted a nationalist agenda calling for a racially pure Croatia and the extermination of Christian Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and Romani populations. Ironically, they considered Bosnian Muslims to be ethnically Catholic who were forced to convert to Islam by the Ottomans.

As I pass through Capljina, a somewhat bustling town compared to the other settlements I’ve cruised through today, it occurs to me that I’m just a few kilometers from Surmanci, the site of one of the most horrific atrocities committed by the Croats during World War II. It’s a chilling thought, but I’ve no interest in visiting.

Overshadowed by the horrors of the Holocaust which it was also complicit, the Ustaše-perpetrated Serbian genocide and ethnic cleansing campaign is not very well known. The brutality of the Ustaše shocked even the Germans who had witnessed the atrocities. In a Gestapo Report sent to Heinrich Himmler in 1942 noted, “The Ustaše committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age but especially against helpless old people, women, and children.”

While the Ustaše committed the atrocities in several concentration camps throughout the country, the Ustaše also carried out ad hoc executions and led torturous death marches throughout villages in the Dinaric Alps. During the Summer of 1941, they massacred four-thousand Orthodox Serbs all in the mountains surrounding me.

As I continue to climb, the hills around get steeper, and the occasional glimpse of the river winding below makes me dizzy. There’s a feeble guardrail, but I can’t imagine taking a tumble down. Above me the clouds darken, it looks like rain.

Just a few kilometers from where I am riding, on August 6, 1941, the Ustaše executed most of the residents of Prebilovci, a small village of about 1,000 people. Family-by-family 650 were all pushed alive off a cliff into the Golubinka pit below Surmanci. They fell some 90 feet, slamming into an embankment and then tumbling down another 300 feet to their death—even young children, women and the elderly. To ensure they were effective, the Ustaše through hand grenades on top of the bodies. Today only about 50 people live in Prebilovci.

I wind down the mountain and circle the Hutovo Blato Nature Reserve and lose my GPS connection and miss a turn and find myself in the lakeside town of Svitava before realizing I’m going the wrong way. I find the very tight turn and climb up the mountains. In about thirty minutes I find myself behind a handful of cars at the Croatian border station. Border stops aren’t difficult in these parts. They do interrupt the flow of my journey—the ride. Sometimes there are long and hot waits like in Montenegro, or other times bureaucratically annoying like crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I pass through the only stretch of coastline Bosnia, and Herzegovina has on the Adriatic and the resort town of Neum before I get to the border. The three cars ahead of me were all stopped by the border control, and I witness the exchange of documents and some discussion. I’m ready to stop and get off my bike to gather my documents, but instead, I’m waved through. No documents, no discussion.

It’s Saturday afternoon, and I’m in Croatia.

The tiny town of Ston on the Pelješac peninsula along the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia. Its fortress has the longest wall in all of Europe. Those are salt pans just in the distance—the oldest in Europe.

It’s not long before I come to the turnoff to the Peljesac peninsula and head to the tiny town of Ston. In Southern Dalmatia, as the coastal region here is known, Ston is home to the oldest salt pans in Europe and the longest to a medieval fortress that has the longest fortified walls in Europe. All of this in a town with a population of just two thousand.

I pass a long section of the walls and then pull into the driveway of Fort Kaštio, a massive castle-like structure that connects the walls at the Southeast corner of the fortress. A gate blocks the road into Ston, yet I can see a few cars inside and several cafes, an old church and a handful of shops. I park in front of the gate and walk around. There’s not a single hotel or guest house in the town, though I remember passing a sign for one a few kilometers back in Mali Ston, or Little Ston.

So I hop on the bike, turn the key on, and pull the clutch. The lever goes limp. It’s like shaking hands with someone who has no grip. My clutch cable gives out. Shit. I thought it would last longer. I’m too far from Zagreb. And the sun is beaming down, making me hot and sweaty. Can I ride the bike to Mali Ston?

I get the bike in neutral and start it up. Revving the engine, I stomp on the shifter and into first gear. The bike lurches forward, and the front wheel flies into the air—the biggest wheelie I’ve ever done! I grab all the brake I can before I enter the main road. A couple walking on the street, stunned, look at me with wondering eyes.

The even smaller town of Mali Ston (Little Ston) sits on the eastern side of the Pelješac peninsula—famous for its oysters and mussels.

The owner of the Ostrea Hotel goes out of his way to help this stuck and stranded motorcyclist. Not a bad place to be stuck or stranded.

There’s no way I’m riding this bike. So I push it to the side of the main road in front of a souvenir stand. The owner of the stand doesn’t speak English, but the woman who works in the tourist information office next door does. The two of them chatter and tell me there is a mechanic nearby who worked on their scooters in the past. But he doesn’t answer when they call him.

They try calling an auto mechanic, but since it’s Saturday, he doesn’t answer either. It’s getting late; I have no choice but to stay here and solve this problem. I ask if there is a hotel or B&B. A man hanging around the souvenir stand offers me an apartment. He doesn’t speak English. I know I need a better connection here, so I pass on the apartment and ask if there’s a full-service hotel. A few phone calls later, they tell me that the owner of a hotel in Mali Ston will come to pick me up.

I move my bike to a safe place under a tree, pull my necessities off and cover it.

Doc hangs under a tree near the souvenir stand. I’ll have to leave the bike a few kilometers from my hangout—but it seems safe and quiet here.

Moments later Mr. Željko Kralj, owner of the Hotel Ostrea and the Kapetanova Kuca restaurant where his wife Lidija is the head chef, shows up and takes me to the hotel. He tells me that there’s nowhere to get parts or someone to help work on the bike until after the weekend.

There is a new sense of urgency and a modest problem to solve. I need a new clutch cable and to continue this journey.

Stari Most—Medieval Mostar Bridge. Once a symbol of unity, this bridge now divides a city.

Stari Most — “old bridge” in Mostar Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After a few days of getting poked, and jolted with blunt reminders of Sarajevo’s past, I hop on my bike and head west toward Mostar, a city with a population just over 100,000. Though like Sarajevo, where the population has declined some 30 percent since 1991, Mostar lost only over 20 percent. With so many people leaving, I wonder and worry what might happen here over the next decade.

I’m surprised to find a spanking new four-lane highway (A1) heading out of Sarajevo. But after just some 20 kilometers of pure traffic-free joy, somewhere around Tarcin, I’m diverted off the highway through a toll booth. After paying I continue my journey on twisting and traffic-congested secondary road (E78). In the next ten years, the A1 should open Sarajevo and the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina with coastal Croatia to the southwest and to Serbia and continental Croatia to the north and northeast.

The ride to Mostar takes me about two-and-a-half hours. The trucks and traffic and the occasional daredevil driver passing in both directions around curves or over hills that to these eyes look like suicide or death wish moves. I creep up behind a slow mover, move to the left to peer down the opposite lane, only to be shoved back into my lane by an oncoming car or calculate my risk with a pending hill, corner or fast-moving traffic.

The entire dance is stressful, so I take a breath, relax and just set into my space and not worry about the blocked view, or slow pace. This is okay. After all, I’m riding the Balkans and will be in Mostar before nightfall.

Things get slower in the bustling city of Konjic, a beautiful town nestled in the mountains on the Neretva River. It’s here I notice a sign for “Tito’s Bunker.” I’m curious, but with the late start and desire to be in Mostar, I pass it by and the downtown area where the Konjic Bridge and pedestrian area offer photo ops for this picturesque city.

It’s one of few regrets I had so far on this trip. I’ve made myself open to possibilities, traveling without an itinerary which means I rarely book a room in advance. Not stopping. Konjic and the bunker must wait. Then again, will I be back in Bosnia again? This is the problem and the opportunity.

For the next hour, I follow the river and pass Jablanica Lake where adventure shops hawk rafting and mountain trekking trips. While I still sweat at stoplights or for turning traffic, the air is crisp and when moving the flow through my jacket is refreshing.

Before the Bosnian war and when the city was under siege by Croat and Bosnian Serb forces, Mostar was the most diverse city in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), with a population mixed of Croats, Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). Today, it’s mostly Croats and Bosniaks as only about 5 percent of Serbs remain. The old town of Mostar is a cozy and quiet pedestrian-only district teeming with cafes, boutiques, and restaurants. Cobblestone paths wind around and cross the Neretva River with the iconic peaked arch Stari Most, or “old bridge.” It’s stunning. The medieval bridge gave the city its name: from Mostari, which means “bridge keepers.”

Stari Most, the legendary Mostar Bridge in its full glory. In 1993 the Croats blew up the original bridge, but the international community painfully restored it in 2004.

Constructed in 1566 by architect Mimar Hajrudin, the Mostar Bridge (Stari Most) is a marvel example of Balkan Ottoman architecture, and at the time it was the largest single-arch bridge in the world. But on the ninth of November in 1993, after being blasted by 60 shells, the medieval bridge collapsed into the river—devastating the city’s spirit and preventing residents from crossing the river. Trapped on the east side of the river after the bridge fell, the Bosniaks could not access clean drinking water.

I watch the video and try to get my head around the notion that someone would order the destruction of medieval history. Keep in mind, this was eight years before the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. But the Croats?

The bridge survived over 400 years, and in one day it crumbles and crashes into the river below. For years Stari Most represented unity, bridging two sides of the population, the Croatians on the west with the Bosnian Muslims on the east. Together they lived undivided and peaceful. For hundreds of years young and well-trained athletes celebrated their unity by diving off the bridge, splashing into the river some 70 feet below.

Today, Mostar is the most divided city in Bosnia Herzegovina. Most of the young Croats living here fear to cross the historic bridge. According to a survey, 80 percent of them have never crossed the bridge. Yet today, it’s one the country’s largest tourist attractions. Young athletes, now only Bosniaks, still perform for the crowds, diving off the bridge for donations.

 

In the first year of the Bosnian War (1991-1995), most of the ethnic tension in this region flared between the Croats and the Bosnian Serbs. In fact, during that time the Croats joined forces with the Bosniaks to battle the Bosnian Serbs. But a controversial meeting changed all that.

The presidents of the six Yugoslavia republics (Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Slovenia) often met as the tension and crisis escalated. During these meetings, they debated the sovereignty of the individual republics and its ethnic divisions. Yet, on the 24th of January in 1991, Slovenia was the first to secede from Yugoslavia and became the first independent state of the former Yugoslavia federation.

Meanwhile, fearful that the entire country would fall, the leadership of the weakening Yugoslavia suspected Croatia was planning a military coup or war with the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army.

They were right, almost.

The day after the secession of Slovenia, the Croatian president Franjo Tudman met with the Yugoslavia leadership in Belgrade and proclaimed, “In that Yugoslavia, without Slovenia – there is no Croatia too. I think I was clear enough.”

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the complicated conflict, its suffice to say after Croatia declared its independence (8th October 1991), Serbia, the largest of the former republics controlled the Yugoslav People’s Army. , Under the leadership of president Slobodan Milošević, Serbia wasn’t about to let the dream of a greater republic crumble. So hey waged a horrific war with the Croats and at one point his forces occupied one-third of Croatia.

The Yugoslav People’s Army not only battled Croatia in Croatia but back in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbs attacked the Croatian village of Ravno. Soon after, Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, and for about a year the Croatians united with the Bosniaks fighting the Serbs.

So why then did the Croats, once united with the Bosniaks, shell and destroy this legendary medieval bridge on its own turf? Franjo Tudman, the Croatian president, and Serbian president Milosevic held a meeting in Karađorđevo, a town in northern Serbia. At this meeting, many historians believe, the two presidents secretly agreed to the partitioning of BiH. They promised that each would annex parts of the Bosnia and Herzegovina, making larger territories for soon to be independent republics of Serbia and Croatia. The deal called for a buffer zone in between. This would be the new state of Bosnia.

Though there are much debate and shouts of unfounded conspiracy theories about this meeting. To be sure, there are no witnesses, records, or recordings of the publicly announced meeting. So, the exact details can neither be confirmed nor denied.

Though one thing I can confirm is the Croats destroyed the Stari Most here in Mostar. Destroying the iconic peaked bridge was a central tactic in the Croat military strategy to isolate the ethnic Bosnians. Years later during hearings by the Hague Tribunal after the war, the Croatian General, Slobodan Praljak, considered responsible for destroying Stari Most, the historic stone bridge, said, “those stones have no value. They sentenced him to twenty years for a “joint criminal enterprise.”

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted and sentenced General Praljak to twenty years in prison for crimes against “humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions”, “extensive appropriation of property not justified by military necessity” and “plunder of public or private property through the third category of joint criminal enterprise liability, on which given his command responsibility he failed to act and prevent.”

After an appeal by Praljak, who insisted on defending himself, some charges related to the Stari Most bridge were overturned. He argued the bridge was a legitimate military target. Even so, many of the charges stood. Unable to accept the ruling that the charges for his crimes and the sentence would stand Praljak, in one of the most dramatic courtroom scenes in modern history, addressed the court and stated, “Judges, Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal. With disdain, I reject your verdict!” He then, on November 29, 2017, in front of those judges, committed suicide by drinking poison—on live television.

After the war, beginning in 1998 the international community orchestrated a plan to rebuild the bridge. A coalition led by UNESCO and included the World Bank, World Monuments Fund, and Aga Khan Trust for Culture would monitor the reconstruction. The Bosnian government, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Croatia, and the European Development Bank all provided funding. Construction began in June 2001.

The coalition worked with experts and the Turkish construction firm Er-Bu to ensure that the bridge adhered to the original design and engineering and employed original Ottoman construction techniques. They also used the same local materials from the original bridge. In fact after months of struggle, divers from the Hungarian Army recovered many of the original stones that had fallen into the river, while local quarries provided additional stones. The final construction bill was about $15 million. The coalition celebrated the reconstruction and inaugurated the bridge three years later on July 23, 2004.

Eager to see this bridge and revel and wonder about its recent turbulent history, I make my way to Mostar. I punch into my GPS the address of a guest house in the old town, but when I get closer, I find the street blocked by huge pylons. Uh oh, I realize it’s in the pedestrian zone. I idle on the main boulevard and glance down the promenade. It’s wider than most of the promenades I’d walked so far on this journey. There are few pedestrians. So I gently release my clutch, then slowly motor down the right side of the walkway. After 50 meters, I duck into a narrow alley barely wide enough for a car. The owner of the guest house, the Hotel Pellegrino tells me I must park in the alley, but I worry a car might hit my bike. So we move my bike to closer to the promenade where the lane is wider. I cover my bike and set out to explore Mostar.

created by dji camera

I’m only about 700 meters from the old bridge, Stari Most. The pedestrian walkway is lined with cafes, shops, and souvenir stands. It narrows as it gets closer to the river and bridge. I stop to check out the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, a small domed mosque with a tall minaret. Around the mosque is a small graveyard and garden. I pay a few marks to enter the garden, mosque and to climb the minaret.

From here in the garden, I get my first view of Stari Most. More than just the bridge, what strikes me is the river below and the surrounding Ottoman town that is tucked into a gorge. The river is a luminescent blue-green. Across are a few restaurants clinging to the cliffs. I note I should enjoy a good meal on this river tonight.

It’s a narrow and claustrophobic hike up some 100 steps to the top of the minaret.

It’s a tight, narrow, steep, and dizzying climb up the minaret’s nearly 100 steps. I’m lucky nobody is heading down, for it would be impossible to pass without serious body contact. At the top, I gaze in awe at a spectacular view of the entire old town and the beautiful bridge. I am here at the perfect time, nearly magic hour for light. Plus, only two others are on the cramped and claustrophobic viewing platform. I’m in awe of the beauty, and the feeling overwhelms me, as I think about a bridge that once connected and joined this community but now so terribly divides it.

There are no speakers affixed to the minaret, usually used for the call to prayer. The mosque is most interesting from the exterior. The Ottoman’s built the mosque between 1611 and 1618. It is the second largest in Mostar. The interior is stark and other than the dome which is unique in the Balkans, it’s underwhelming compared to those I’ve seen in Syria and Turkey. The attraction here is the view of the town and bridge.

Crowds are jamming the bridge when I arrive. A diver is perched on the edge of the bridge, outside the railing, he seems ready to dive. But his assistant who trying to collect tips from the bridge-crossers, yells to the crowd they’re short of the €50 they want to jump. The apathetic and tight-fisted crowd fails to come through, so the assistant hands back the donations. There will be no dive.

Locals have been diving off this bridge for nearly 400 years, once it united the residents here—now it divides them. The divers still perform.

It’s more than 70 feet down to the water below, as this driver tempts the crowd with his death-defying feat of jumping off this medieval bridge.

I am drawn to a sign that says “wine bar” and follow a steep staircase down to Restoran Divan, but am surprised to discover they don’t offer wines by the glass, nor do they have a bar. The staff is congenial, fun, and agree with me as I outline the hypocrisy of the sign that lured me here. They seat me at a table on a terrace perched on the cliff, order a bridge and take in views of what the water called the “secret Mostar bridge” — a pedestrian walkway over a small gorge. A bride and groom are posing on this bridge, with the veil of the bride’s dress draping over the side of the bridge.

It’s here I meet an Austrian couple who are also riding a BMW GS around Bosnia and Croatia. They’ve been visiting Bosnia and Croatia for the last ten years, Pieter shares insight and tips for good roads, great food, and tasty wine at my next destination—Croatia.

It’s not exactly a wine bar, the bartender at Restoran Divan agrees, but he shows me that the DO have wine!

One of the servers at Restoran Divan shows me that he’s got the muscles to carry my beer down to the terrace after I insisted I could carry my own!

Posing for a photoshoot a bride a groom use the “mini Mostar bridge” for the setting—my view from Restoran Divan here in Mostar.

After sitting at a small cafe near the entrance of the old bridge and watching the world walk by, I decide on dinner at Restoran Teatar, I bring my laptop and plan on catching up on my writing and ‘digital media management’ while taking in a night view of the legendary bridge. It took cruising to a few restaurants to find a local bottle of wine, most offering a glass of its own conception. Those that I tried left me underwhelmed, so I resolved to find a bottle and share with the staff and customers.

Yes, there is good wine in Bosnia.

I’m offered two choices at Teatar and choose the Vionica Blatina (grape) from Vina Rubis, a deep, complex red with smooth tannins and good fruit. This paired nicely with cheese, cured and grilled meats with the iconic Balkans ajvar red pepper and eggplant sauce. The more I travel here, the more I want to make this when I get home. Perhaps it’s better described as a spread, relish, dip or even a savory chutney. Whatever you wish to call it, I promise to post a recipe here soon—you will want to make your own concoction of this lauded staple of Balkan cuisine.

It’s after midnight when I depart Restoran Teatar and make my way back to my guest house. It’s eerie, the shiny cobblestones of the streets glow under the light of the full moon. Shops bustling with merchants and customers, now are boarded up. I spot a few lovers making out near the bridge. Other midnight strollers walk about. It’s mostly quiet. I cross the Mostar bridge, and like the stones of the streets, the river shimmers in the moonlight. The minaret I climbed earlier glows orange against the sky.

It’s eerily quiet and the full moon adds to the mood as I wander the old town after midnight.

It’s quiet especially as no cars are allowed to pass over these cobblestoned streets.

The full moon reflects on Mostar and the Neretva River.

It’s about here when I hear the thumping bass of house and pop music from the Cave Nightclub just down this pathway.

A few hundred meters from the bridge I hear the unmistakable sound of DJ mixed pop music. Slightly muted I follow the sound until I come to a cave tucked under the rocks. Lights flash, bodies move, and security guards dressed in dark shirts donning ear pieces direct me to a small window carved out of the rock—a coat check—though nobody would dare wear a coat this balmy evening, but I hand the attendant my laptop bag and wander into the club.

Truthfully, I’m past the clubbing age and prefer a cafe, bar, bistro, speakeasy, or a cozy live music venue over the pumping, thumbing and grinding beat of house or pop music at a nightclub. But my unyielding curiosity and the hypnotic sounds call me. So here I am, the oldest dude in this place.

The setting of the Alibaba Pecina/Cave Night Club is stunning. It’s a real cave, not a Disney-esque creation or an architects attempt at a themed-environment. At its tallest point, the cave is about 12 to 15 meters. Alcoves tucked along the perimeter are lit with colored lights, and a stage set into a natural opening where the DJ spins the tunes. It’s early for a nightclub, about 12:30. So I grab a beer and find a high-top toward the back of the cave and sink into people watching mode as the venue fills up.

A group of three young guys walk up and throw onto the table a large ice bucket packed with a fifth of whiskey and a half-dozen small coke bottles. They pour drinks, bop their head to the music and every few minutes glance at their digital devices.

After a few continuations of the pumping mix of Serbian pop music, I nod, smile and lift my beer when one guy glances my way. It doesn’t take more than another song until he invites me to join them at their high-top. They pour me a stiff whiskey and coke, and we chat during lulls in the music. I show them pics of my bike and a few places I’ve been. Another guy is a local kart racing champion, his friend tells me. We share pictures. The club is more crowded, a group of girls takes over my former high-top, while more guys join us at ours.

For more than the next hour, they continue to top off my glass with whiskey and a few drops of coke. Two hours pass and the whiskey bottle is nearly empty. So I wander up to the bar and order another. A waiter brings it to the table, and my new friends smile, and I crack open the bottle and do the pouring. I shoot photos, but the dim lit cave makes getting anything decent tough. I manage to grab a few portraits of the guys and a couple young blond beauties.

Making new friends at the Pecina Cave Nightclub in Mostar

Late night portraits of the young beauties, guys and girls, at Pecina Alibaba Cave Nightclub in Mostar.

Yes, this nightclub truly is in a cave, decorated with colored lights and pumping with the sounds of pop.

Making new friends at the Pecina Cave Nightclub in Mostar

It’s after 4 am when I grab my laptop and sneak out of the club. I’m not used to getting jacked up on sugared beverages and whiskey, but I don’t get up the next morning until after 10 am. At 10:30 I receive a message from one of my new friends who asks about the pictures I took. We exchange a few messages, and I send him the pics.

It’s almost noon when I emerge from my room to the lobby, I know I missed the “included breakfast,” but it surprises the woman when I ask her to check out.

“We thought you were staying another night,” she says, “checkout is at 10 am.” Ten o’clock in the morning, I think. Wow, I had no idea. That’s way too early. So she reverses the discount I negotiated the night before with the owner. Oh well. So I pack up my bike and take off, leaving new friends, the Mostar Old Bridge, and unanswered questions behind.

Today, I will cross the border and tonight I’ll sleep in Croatia. It’s onward.

Logistics

Riding

Sarajevo to Mostar
104 miles
Didn’t fill up the tank leaving Mostar. Used the last of my Bosnian “Marks” currency.
Purchased 8.7 liters at 231 marks per liter
$1 USD = 1.7 BAM

Accomodations

Sarajevo: Opal Home Hotel
Mostar: Hotel Pellegrino