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

 

Is One President Enough? Ask Bosnia. They’ve Got Three.

The Bosnia and Herzegovina Flag

It’s true. Every four years, Bosnia and Herzegovina elect three presidents. So if you think American politics is polarizing with just one chief executive, imagine the tension and hostility that could come from a system that mandates three presidents who rotate and change every eight months. This is life here in Bosnia.

It makes my mind whirl.

I’ll bet you had no idea. So, take your head out of American politics and the hype and media craze over midterm elections, join me in a quick refresher course of what’s happening, and what happened in this part of the world.

The population of Bosnia and Herzegovina comprises three groups: Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. These groups are divided by religion: Orthodox Christian, Catholic, and Muslim. In eastern Europe during the early 1990s mostly peaceful protests led to the collapse of communism and newly established independent sovereign states. But here in the Balkans things were far from peaceful.

After World War I, The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created by uniting the former Kingdom of Serbia with the newly formed State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs. Ruled by Kings Peter, Paul, and Alexander until World War II, when Germans troops joined by the Hungarians and Italians moved to Yugoslavia. Slav King Peter II fled the country while the communist revolutionary Josip Broz Tito (Tito) led the resistance movement “Partisans” revolting and liberating several territories held by the Germans.

After World War II ended, Tito led a new communist territory named the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). The new federation comprised six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia and two autonomous provinces within Serbia: Vojvodina and Kosovo.

For nearly 35 years Tito held Yugoslavia together. Along the way, he split with Stalin, but still pursued collectivist ideals. They saw him as a more benevolent leader choosing “re-education” in hard labor camps as opposed to Stalin-esque death camps as a means to quell political adversaries.

After Tito died in 1980, leadership in Yugoslavia splintered and moved from central Belgrade control to regional leaders. Yet it still loosely associated with and was kept in check by its communist brethren, the Soviets. But with the falling of the Soviet Union, several republics of Yugoslavia declared independence. The first to declare was Slovenia, and then Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Yugoslavian president, Slobodan Milošević who had been stoking a nationalist flame garnered support as these republics threatened the future of a greater Serbian Yugoslavia. Milošević and the Yugoslavia Peoples Army in just 10 days of fighting failed to take back Slovenia, but a brutal war broke between the Serbs and Croats less than a year later.

When Bosnia declared independence, both the Bosniak and Croat populations agreed, the minority Bosnian Serbs, under orders from Milosevic refused, and setting the stage for war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Some four years later, after intervention by the international community, the fighting stopped upon signing of the Dayton Agreement. The Dayton agreement called for the establishment of a joint Bosniak/Croat Federation (about 51% of the territory) and the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska or RS (about 49% of the territory). Both the Bosniaks and Croats of the federation and the republic would each get to vote for its own president.

Wait! I’m in Bosnia and Herzegovina in one moment; I’m in Republic of Srpska the next? I haven’t passed through any border station, stamped my passport, or gone through any customs process. Where am I?

 

Flag of Republika Srpska

Though leadership was divided this way before the war and Dayton agreement, the new peace accord and Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina called for the “Presidency of Bosnia, and Herzegovina comprises three members: one Bosniak and one Croat elected from the Federation and one Serb elected from the Republika Srpska.” Together, they serve one four-year term.

It’s no wonder the young people who could bring a brighter future and more sensibility to the region are fleeing their country. With unemployment at more than 35%, Bosnia and Herzegovina has the second-lowest in the world.

So forget the midterms, paralysis of our partisan politics and take a moment to digest what a country that is slightly smaller than West Virginia must contend with its government. Especially since nobody seems to like each other and are unwilling to make concessions, dare they stoke further fire in the region.

With the long hours in the saddle of my motorcycle, I have plenty of time to think. Yet I continue to struggle. I’m eager to learn, understand, and find sense. But the more I ride, the more I find nothing here makes sense.

 

 

When And Where War Leaves You.

The more I wander the old town, walk along and cross the river, ride my bike through the surrounding hillside neighborhoods, the more I try to get a sense of Sarajevo. I wonder about its glorious past as a cosmopolitan city, and of its slow decay, and now, its stumbling resurgence. The victors write history, as the saying goes. In Sarajevo and the Balkans, I’m not sure who is victorious and who is not. And perhaps this is why history here is so clouded and confusing.

I probe, ponder and struggle to understand.

Legendary Sarajevo walking tour guide, Neno—find him!

Mark and I join a morning walking tour of the city center. Our guide, Neno, grew up here during the war. He speaks fast, is quick with numbers and statistics, and passionate, and yet realistic as he speaks of Sarajevo’s past and possible future.

We start on the steps of the National Theatre and then move to the Orthodox Cathedral, Synagogue, Latin Bridge and beyond. I feel that the two-hour walk could extend to four hours as the most interesting part of the tour for me, is the one-on-one time walking between sights where Mark and I dig deeper with penetrating questions.

Unlike Croatia, which is Catholic, and Serbia which is Christian Orthodox, the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina includes both groups plus a large population of Muslims. As Neno explains, “we share the same passport, same language, and we enjoy the same food, the only difference is religion.”

As much as I wander the world, I wonder. Together, children in their innocent naivety play, laugh and share. Animosity, fear, and hate of others is learned, or worse, taught. 

 

Neno tells us he is not religious, nor is his mother. Yet he quizzes his Mom about why she celebrates Muslim holidays. “She does not go to Mosque. She does not wear a headscarf, but she,” he explains. “Mom tells me because she likes to make baklava.” As he figures, many people like the tradition and the coming together of family and friends on such holidays. “Like Christmas,” he figures, “many like the dinner, presents, and tradition.”

Those that are more devout to their Christian or Muslim religious practices today he surmises, are so because so many people lost family members in the war. Neno has only one sister, and his family was fortunate to not lose anyone in the war. But many friends did. Those who found solace from loss found it through their religion.

We wander past a building painted in bright colors, but architecturally it seems awkward, Neno tells us “this is the ugliest building in Sarajevo” The government built it for housing athletes for the 1984 Olympics. Today, it still preserves the same color scheme.

We wander to the Sarajevo Brewery (Sarajevska pivara), founded in 1864, and the only European brewery whose production was uninterrupted during the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In 1907, the brewery grew to become the largest brewery in the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Many locals will tell you that the beer from the brewery tastes so good because of the water. The Sarajevo Brewery is built on top of a natural spring flowing with fresh mountain water. During the siege of Sarajevo, bombing destroyed the city’s infrastructure. The brewery opened its doors and springs to residents who would sometimes travel over an hour in brutal winter cold to fill up jugs with water.

The brewery became a target for the Yugoslav National Army backed Bosnian Serbs who shelled the building, killing many and damaging the structure. But the brewery kept brewing beer and providing water from its springs. Today it’s thriving and has a museum touting its over 150-year history in Sarajevo. Most recently it began marketing bottled water, “Lejla” sourced from its springs. It reminds us of and celebrates its history and the resilience of its neighbors.

The food here is a combination of meats, sausages, bread, and roasted vegetables. While I love the cevapi, borek, and beer. There’s something about the peppers and onions stuffed with ground veal and rice—love it. Especially with a cold glass local Sarajevo beer.

Though the Ottoman’s were here for more than 400 years, it took the Austro-Hungarians to bring sensible mass transit to Sarajevo. It’s one of the oldest in Europe as they wished to test the technology before implementing it in Vienna. Sarajevo was a testing ground.

Though the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was short lived in Sarajevo, its influence lingers. The tram network and the architecture that stands out among the socialist-era concrete block buildings scattered throughout the city. Especially interesting is the fantastical neo-Moorish facade of the 1898 Vijećnica, the Sarajevo City Hall. It was bombed and caught fire during the 1990s siege, but thanks to a restoration plan, it reopened in 2014 after years of reconstruction.

The Sarajevo Brewery history dates back to the Ottoman Empire and is the oldest continously opering brewery in former Ottoman occupied territories.

Sarajevo is a mix of architecture, but the Austro-Hungarian stands out.

Later that night after imbibing in that fresh spring water brewed beer at Sarajevska brewery, Mark and I close a local bar and are entertained by traveling minstrels performing Elvis tunes. An odd end to our time in Sarajevo.

On my way out of town, I find my way around the Sarajevo Airport to see the Sarajevo Tunnel of Hope. My GPS is worthless, but thanks to locals I wind my way around a small neighborhood before coming upon a house where underneath lies remnants of a tunnel that safely ushered locals out of the city from the crazy siege that crippled the place for almost four years. Most important, the tunnel became a means to provide city defenders with weaponry—bypassing the international arms embargo.

This graphic map shows the tunnel and the division of occupied territories during the nearly four-year siege.

The tunnel linked two Bosnian held territories cut off by Bosnian Serbs. It served as a communication channel between Bosnian and Bosnian-allied forces in Sarajevo and outside territories. It supplied the Bosnian troops with supplies, including food, fuel, newspapers, and weapons.

Today the museum under the local house is a blunt reminder of the atrocities of the war, but also the hope and tenacity of locals determined to survive and maintain independence.

Only by circumstance, I like many of my fellow Americans who have not served in our armed forces have lived for the past fifty years free of war. We are numb to it, and only experience the madness through the media. I feel numb, and lucky when I encounter sites like the tunnel of hope. I wonder, what would I do; what would I be doing today; where would I be if I lived through a desperate conflict like those here in Sarajevo.

I can only wonder. For now, I know the lives of my family, friends, and colleagues have been fortunate.

Here is where shared experiences inspire more questions. I can only imagine.

Bullets, Bombs, and Bosnia—Sarajevo’s Suffering Past

Those who’ve walked where blood hath spilled, understand how the feeling cannot be described. Here in Sarajevo, I’m lost for words and lost for reason. The Sarajevo Rose. Read the post, you’ll get it.

For the past two months, I’ve been in touch with Mark Anderson, an Indiana-based rider who also has been riding eastern Europe the past few months. We planned to meet for a beer in Sarajevo. After I sorted out accommodations near the old town, we connected at the City Pub for a cold mug of Bosnian beer.

Our conversation spans topics from futbol (soccer), to history, politics, motorcycles, filmmaking, mutual friends, and the pros and cons of solo motorcycle riding foreign lands. Mark is riding a late-model Suzuki V-Strom. He picked up the bike in Bulgaria earlier this summer, and it’s registered in Ireland. He’s got less than two more weeks before he’ll return to Indiana, so he’s making his way back to Bulgaria where he hopes to find a buyer for the bike.

Enjoying a cold brew with fellow motorcyclist Mark Anderson from Indiana. Lots of words, many more thoughts, and plenty of beer and wine.

There is a wine bar in the old town of Sarajevo, and I found it. Interesting quote on the sign, I guess they found me, too!

Mark demonstrates the Gramaphone.

While I’m looking for good food and wine—and stories for my next book, Mark is a hardcore futbol fan. He looks for good games. He was in Russia for the FIFA World Cup, and since then has made his way to the Croatian coast, catching “footy” along the way.

We move from beer to wine. The wine bar in the old town has few selections, but we order a bottle, and I try the first Bosnian wine of the journey. It’s here we meet a Bosnian couple who now live in Germany, but are in Sarajevo on a short holiday. The migration of young people is a gnawing problem for many Balkan countries. The future lies with the young people, but if they leave, abandon their homeland, who will pave the road to the future?

Bosnian Couple who fled the city, now come back as tourists.

This is the first time I’ve spent much time with an American since starting my adventure in July. When Mark first reached out to me, he was interested in co-authoring a book with an Italian chef with whom he was traveling with. But, the Italian found love or love found him, and he stayed in Russia. Now, Mark tells me, he is fascinated by the migratory paths and the stories behind the migration of people all over Eastern Europe and behind. He would like to develop a short video series of interviews with people whose geographic fate has been at the whim of war, shifts in borders, opportunity, and love.

In the former Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito (Tito), Muslims (Bosniaks), Catholics (Croats)), and Orthodox Christians (Serbs) lived, more or less, in kinetic harmony. After Tito died in 1980, and the ensuing collapse of the Berlin wall, the changes in the Eastern Bloc spread to Yugoslavia. The country fell apart as a slow decline of spirit led to the republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina all declaring independence.

It’s a complicated history, and every day I think I know more, I only realize I know less. With so many ethnicities and many with generations of history dating back several hundred years, emotion and tensions ran high. Some wanted to see Yugoslavia continue. Otherwise wanted independence. Yet, still others with politically motivated plans wanted even greater conflict.

Here in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, for almost four years, this city was under siege by Bosnian-Serb nationalist forces. These forced rebelled an independent state and hoped to sustain a greater Yugoslavia, or Serbia. Residents unable to escape after the bombings started, moved to the basements of their high-rise dwellings as Serbian-backed forces shelled the city, cut off electricity and blocked roads.

The siege lasted from April 6, 1992, to February 29, 1996—the longest in modern military history. Why didn’t the Serbs just take over the city? They wanted to. But equipped with anti-tank weaponry, those defending the city held back the Serbian-backed forces. So these forces hunkered down in the hills surrounding the city, cutting it off from the rest of the country and shelled it—by sniper attack—relentlessly for essentially four years.

Records show that the Serbs launched over 300 artillery and mortar shells, targeting the non-Serbian parts of the city. On the most tragic days, 3,000 shells hit Sarajevo.

The stand-off was tortuous. Today, there is still evidence of the bombings throughout the city, yet the psychological impact is invisible and remains a huge question.

Who is right, who is wrong, who wonders, who reasons, who is blindly ignorant, who doesn’t care. Who is who in Sarajevo.

As I walk the streets, I search in the eyes of people for clues in the eyes of people living their daily lives.

In the sides of buildings, and on sidewalks and roads, I see ruptures from mortar and gunfire, many filled with red resin. Known as Sarajevo roses, sober reminders of the blood spilled on the streets during the siege.

The siege ended in after with the Dayton Agreement, a General Framework for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina drafted by world leaders at the time. It was signed in December 1995 by Slobodan Milošević (Serbia), Alija Izetbegović (President of Bosnia and Herzegovina), Franjo Tuđman (President of Croatia), Bill Clinton, Jacques Chirac (President of France), John Major (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom), Helmut Koh (Chancellor of Germany)l, and Viktor Chernomyrdin (Prime Minister of Russia). The snipers left, and the siege ended on February 29, 1996—a giant leap for a leap year.

Discussing the violence, peace talks, and the deadly siege with a local guide who was in elementary school at the time, he suggests that the “Dayton Agreement didn’t end the war, it froze the war.”

While the war may have ended here in Sarajevo in 1996, a major war started or was ignited here in 1914, just 82 years earlier, when Bosnia and Herzegovina was a province in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Though the territory came under Austro-Hungarian rule in 1878, Vienna provoked the Bosnians by annexing the country from the Ottoman’s in 1908. This sparked the Bosnian Crisis, prompting protests from Bosnian’s neighbors, Serbia and Montenegro.

Because also at this time, Serbian nationalists in Bosnia had laid claim to the territory. So, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef decided to make a statement. He wanted to ensure that everyone in Sarajevo understood that Vienna claimed the Bosnian territory. So he sent his nephew, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and to wave the flag and dedicate a new state museum in the city.

A good plan, but on June 28, 1914, seven Serbian nationalist revolutionaries, armed with grenades and guns, wished to send Vienna a statement of their own. They plotted to kill Ferdinand. The plan was simple, the revolutionaries would station themselves along the route where Ferdinand’s motorcade paraded to the new museum. As the open coach limousine passed each would attempt to kill the Archduke.

The Latin Bridge, just over which the fateful end to the lives of heir of the Austro-Hungarian embpire and his wife. Sarajevo site to the dark side of history.

However, the first assassin, Muhamed Mehmedbasic, chickens out and doesn’t throw his grenade. The second assassin tosses his grenade, but it bounces off the back and explodes in the street behind the car. The driver of the vehicle speeds up, but in doing so seriously injures many in the Royal Party. Ferdinand escapes injury and is rushed to safe quarters at the museum.

Archduke Ferdinand continues with the museum dedication, but instead of attending a luncheon at a nearby hotel afterward, he decides to visit the hospital where those injured in his party were taken.

Nemo holds up the photo of the convicted assassin. of the Archduke and his wife, Gavrilo Princip.

Nobody tells the driver about the change in plans. So after the driver leaves the museum, instead of taking the back roads to the hospital, he crosses the Latin Bridge and turns onto Franz Joseph Street. That’s when the governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Oskar Potiorek, who is riding along with Ferdinand, tells the driver to correct his course. The driver backs up, but the car stalls.

At that moment, one of the Serbian nationalist assassins, Gavrilo Princip, who is still in position on the side of the road and likely sulking due to the failed assassination attempt, looks up and realizes someone has dealt him another card—a second chance.

Though he fails to toss his grenade into the stalled car, he pulls out his gun, walks up the vehicle and fires two shots, lodging one bullet into Ferdinand and the other into his wife, Sophie. They die one hour later. Princip is tackled by passersby and arrested.

Photos and a plaque mark the place where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie here in Sarajevo.

While many other international factors were in play at the time, this double murder is considered being one of the major triggers for World War I — and it happened here on a street corner in Sarajevo.

After the fateful events of that June, Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the killings and won the support of Germany. On  July 28, 1914, one month to the day after they killed Ferdinand and his wife, Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia, beginning the First World War.

The Serbs won the support of Russia, and soon after the shaky peace between Europe’s then superpowers deteriorated. And so, events here in Sarajevo triggered World War I. With Austro-Hungary and Germany on one side, and Russia and France on the other.

This is Sarajevo, and no matter how much I study the eyes of those wandering the streets, I see no sides and have only questions.

Breaking Borders & Riding Bending Roads to Bosnia

For the past two nights, I laid my head to rest in the town of Becici, south of Budva on the southern coast of Montenegro. It’s been fun sharing stories, beer, and good Montenegrin wine with my new friends at the Hotel Swiss Holiday—they went out of the way to find me secure parking—even moving one of their cars to make room.

I’ve enjoyed Montenegro; however today I must crash the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina. With the great connections I’ve made along this journey, I spend more time in each country or city than I thought. That’s okay. This isn’t checklist tourism. No, it’s important to take the time to learn, understanding and connect.

There’s one last stop I must make, however, in Montenegro: The Ostrog Monastery. This is the most important Christian site in the Balkans. It attracts over one million pilgrims every year. Locals tell me it’s just a few kilometers off the main road to Niksic and the Bosnian border.

That’s an understatement.

Perhaps I should have researched the route before taking off. However, I remember seeing signs for it when I took the long way around to meet Goran Redevic at the Redevic Estate Winery.

I pull off the main road and follow the signs, it’s confusing, and the road is narrow, one lane wide in parts, and it twists and turns up the side of the mountain. After 20 minutes, I wonder if I made a wrong turn. If this place attracts so many visitors, where are the busses and cars? I’m alone, and when I see a car, it’s a tight squeeze.

There are few roads around here. So I keep climbing. Soon I’m winding through hairpin switchbacks, often cards make wide sweeping turns coming downhill. They breach my lane, causing me to correct my turn. It’s maddening, but I putt, go slow, up the bill.

I come to a large parking lot next to what is the lower monastery, but I do not stop as the real jewel is still a dozen or more switchbacks up the road. After another two kilometers, I come to a gate and a guard. I idle and look at him. He lifts the gate and waves me in. So I park just 30 meters from the upper monastery.

The sun blazes down, it’s hot.

The upper monastery clings to the near vertical mountainside. It glows bright white in the midday sun. It seems to defy gravity and construction engineering as it is set on the sheer face of a massive rock.

The striking and gravity-defying Ostrog Monestary in northern Montenegro.

In the early 17th century, as the Ottoman’s were wreaking havoc in the Balkans, Christians fled to the mountains to seek solace and hide. Built by Vasilije, Bishop of Herzegovina and later the St. Vasilije of Ostrog—or St. Basil of Ostrog. They enshrined his body in a tomb and set it within the walls of the cavelike church.

As with many of these important Christian shrines, stories of miracles spread throughout the Balkans and beyond. Since not only Orthodox Christian pilgrims come here, but Catholics, and Muslims too. Traditionally, many pilgrims climb the steps in bare feet, or even on their knees.

There’s a long line waiting to climb steps to go inside. I’m in my boots, riding pants, and jacket. In the sun, I feel like I’m in a sauna.

So I step into a tiny cave-like room next to the ticket window. It’s hotter in here because of the one hundred candles burning in tubs of water on both sides of the room. It’s a Serbian Orthodox tradition to choose a candle, kiss it, light and place it on either side—one side is to honor the living, the other side for the dead. One man does neither. He sifts the melted wax floating on water, collecting it in large plastic bags outside.

Bags of melted wax from just one-half day from candles burning in the cave-like chapel at Ostrog Monastery.

I wait in line, but after 45 minutes I moved only 3 meters. The line stretches up over 100 meters. I notice a shortcut, women with infant children may bypass most of the line. That will not work for me.

This is the wrong day to explore the Ostrog Monastery, the most important in the Balkans,

I struggle with the decision I must make. Stay and wait, or move on. I want to be in Sarajevo by nightfall—preferably earlier. I play a game with the line. A guy is wearing a red hat 25 meters ahead of me. If he makes it to the second set of steps in 20 minutes, then I stay. If he does, I figure I will be at the entrance in just over an hour.

After twenty minutes the red hat moved only five feet.

I cannot wait. I wind down another long stretch of hairpin switchbacks to the north, as I head to the border. After Niksic, the road gets narrower and the hills greener. I’m now heading into the mountains. After an hour, nature calls and I pull over to take care of business and examine the map.

Some two million people visit Ostrog Monastery every year, I think half of them showed up the day I wanted to explore the legendary memorial to St. Basil.

In the distance, I hear the distinctive roar of a two-stroke engine. Soon two motorcycles and a car pull over and greet me. The three kids are all from the Czech Republic. On is riding a 1960 Jawa, a Czech built motorcycle from the days of U.S.S.R. The other is a 1970 CZ, also Czech. Their body is driving a car, a 1972 Skoda—also Czech. The Skoda has been overheating they tell me. So they must stop now and again to cool down. The CZ and Jawa are struggling on the modest inclines of these mountains. So they must run full throttle or be bogged down.

The guys are all twenty-one and twenty-two years old. They have been on the road for eight days and got as far south as Albania after exploring the Croatian coast. The Czechs tell me Croatia is no fun—just filled with tourists and too many cars. I agree when they tell me they loved Albania. It is their first road trip—first every trip—outside their country. I can sense the energy and glow of new discoveries and adventures. They will do this often, I’m sure.

These young Czech bikers prefer classic Czech-built machines from the USSR era. A 1960 Jawa and a 1970 CZ. They rode these from the Czech Republic to Albania and on their way back when we connected on the roadside.

These three Czech guys are on their first-ever trip outside the Check republic. The 1972 Czech-built Skoda car serves as the pack mule for the two-bikers.

Czech built bikes from the old days of USSR, a Jawa, and a CZ.

This ’72 Skoda overheated constantly, challenging the Czech adventurers with every kilometer

We joke about racing up the next hill. The guy on the Jawa, with its torquey two-stroke, roars up the road. I stick with him, but roll off the throttle and let him ahead. The CZ struggles behind me, so I let him catch up. Just then the Skoda rounds a corner and pulls over. More overheating.

After some cooling, we all move on again—toward the Bosnia Herzegovina border. When we come to a gas station, the honk, wave, and pull in to work on their old vehicles. Classic.

In about twenty minutes I’m winding around the beautiful aquamarine colored Piva Lake—which is a reservoir created by. I pass through about twenty tunnels, carved in the rock around the lake, and through Piva Canyon. It’s the highest artificial lake in the world—created by Mratinje Dam,  built in the 1970s.

Beautiful Piva Lake in northern Montenegro.

Riding around Piva Lake and Gorge, I passed through more than a dozen tunnels, many crudely carved like this one.

What a beautiful day to be riding a motorcycle through Montenegro.

When I get to the Border of Bosnia, the border guard refuses to let me pass. He sees that my EU Green Card insurance papers exclude Bosnia and Herzegovina. I ask him if I can buy insurance.

“No, you go back to Podgorica,” he suggests that I ride back three hours to get insurance.

Yeah, right! Stingy with much more than handing me back my documents and holding traffic up so I can turn around. I ask him again, pointing to all my flags. “Are you sure you don’t want me to visit your country?”

“Go to Corridor Ex, in Montenegro,” he says. “At border, you find.”

So you CAN buy the insurance. I feel this is all a scam, but I go to the Montenegro border control, park my bike because I don’t want to go through Montenegro immigration again. Then look for a corridor marked X, and wander into a room with two men staring at computers. I thought this was the corridor. I’m wrong. It’s up the road 100 meters.

So I hike up the 100 meters in my jacket, sweating when I wander into a small restaurant and campground. It’s called “Coridor X” and is also a camp for rafters taking trips down the Piva River.

It’s here I run into another group of six Czech travelers, the youngest is about 15 and the oldest in his sixties—all guys. They are riding a wacky collection of home-modified vehicles, including a three-wheel CZ. I tell them about the group of three Czechs I saw an hour before and suggested they connect. They take pictures of me and my bike.

Another group of Czech men who prefer old technology and, in this case, three-wheeled custom conversions also running CZ and Jawa engines.

Here at Coridor X, I pay thirty euros, get the paper and ride back over the bridge and to Bosnia immigration. The old man lets me in.

I’m in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the road from the border sucks. Hours later, after finding a better road and winding through another canyon and around beautiful mountains, I arrive in Sarajevo.

Now I need a room and a beer.

The View & Look From The Largest Vineyard In Europe

Drone shot of the Plantaze Vineyard, the largest single vineyard in Europe. Photo courtesy of 13-Jul Plantaze

You might think it’s odd that someone would plant the largest single vineyard in Europe is one of its smallest countries.

I was curious. In my search for the unique autochthonous or indigenous grapevine varieties, I discovered that most of this vineyard is planted with Vranac, a unique grape found in the Balkan regions.

So at the suggestion of Goran Radevic at Radevic Estate wines, I contacted Vesna Maras, Ph.D. of Plantaze, the company behind the planting, management, and production of wine from this massive vineyard. Sadly, Dr. Maras was out of town, but she referred me to Anita Gazivoda and Jovana Raicevic who agreed to meet and share with me the story of Plantaze and the work they are doing with Vranac and other indigenous varietals.

Plantaze, translated is “plantation,” is also known as “13. Jul Plantaze” was established in 1963 and today is the largest viticultural and winery in Montenegro. In 1977 the government-owned company identified a large plot of land just south of the capital Podgorica, then named Titograd after the former Yugoslavia leader Josip Broz Tito. This plot would become the largest vineyard in a single location in all of Europe.

Scientists and researchers Anita Gazivoda and Jovana Raicevic of 13-Jul Plantaze take me on a tour and history lessons of indigenous Montenegrin grapes and the current state of affairs in the viticultural and winemaking world at the largest vineyard in Europe.

I meet Anita and Jovana at a gas station close to Plantaze’s administrative offices where I leave my motorcycle and riding gear and join the two women in their car as we head to the legendary vineyard.

Covering 2,310 hectares (about 9 square miles or 5,700 acres), Plantaze’s Cemovsko polje vineyard contains 28 different grape varieties, of which 70 percent is Vranac, which translates to “black horse,” a dark grape that yields an almost black red wine. So dark that Some Vranac wines are so dark black it’s impossible to see a powerful light shine through it.

The rocky and harsh soil conditions are perfect for growing grapes at Plantaze in Montenegro.

Anita explains that “this was a desert of rocks” before the vineyard was established. It took five years and cost $62 million (in 1977 dollars) to plant 11 million vines. “The vines wouldn’t survive here without irrigation,” she tells me, “so 23 wells were drilled to a depth of 50 meters (164 feet). They slow drip irrigate most of the vineyard.  The stony soil is composed of 95 percent limestone and 5 percent fine pebbles and rocks. Vines here benefit from 10-12 hours of sun every day.

As I’ve wandered through the vineyards of the Balkans so far, I’ve focused on smaller boutique wineries. But here, with an annual production of some 15 million bottles of wine and brandy, Plantaze hardly fits that mold. However, what attracted me to the massive operation that employs some 700 people full-time and more during harvest, is the research and development project headed up by Dr. Maras.

In 2011 Plantaze established a department that is licensed to develop and research national and international projects designed to bring appreciation to local indigenous grapevine varieties.

A map of the huge Plantaze vineyard operation.

One landmark uncovered by this research is proof that the true origin of Montenegro’s most important varietal, Vranac, stems from the ancient varietal of Kratosija. Kratosija has the same DNA profile as Italian Primitivo, American Zinfandel, and Croatian Crljenak Kaštelanski. Through extensive testing and analysis of thousands of grape varieties, the Plantaze team found that Kratosija is the father of Vranac.

But it gets better. The research spans more than a decade, including working with research partners from leading viticulture institutions in Italy and Spain. Not only did they discover that Vranac is a direct decedent (offspring or “father”) of Kratosija, but that Kratosija originates in Montenegro.

This could be a blow to the head of Italians and Croatians who over the years have claimed to be the origin of “Zinfandel”, but in fact, this grape crossed borders and seas from the vineyards of Montenegro. In fact, the first published information on the Kratosija grape, from The Medieval Statute of Budva, dates back to Medieval times between 1426, and 1431. Budva is a port town south of Kotor in Montenegro. This medieval document devotes 20 chapters to viticulture, grapes, and wine. Originally written in Latin, The Budva Statue has been translated into Italian and Montenegrin.

I’m sitting in the front seat with my camera bag in my lap, my audio recorder in hand and listening to these two women, both scientists and ampelographers (field of botany for identification and classification of grape varieties through its leaves and berries), and my head is spinning with all this history. We cruise and tour the vineyards while they continue to enlighten me about Montenegro and it’s history through viticulture and winemaking.

While you can find Vranac in Macedonia, Serbia and elsewhere in the Balkans, it’s a native Montenegrin red wine grape. Another indigenous grape is the white varietal Krstač, named because the grape clusters are shaped like a cross.

You may be reading this and going cross-eyed, but stick with me. Remember, Montenegro is a small country. It’s smaller than the state of Connecticut, where I grew up. Even so, Montenegro exhibits some of the highest diversity of unique and autochthonous wine grapes in the Balkans.

A peek at the soil and rock composition of the Plantaze vineyard.

We stop by the banks of the Cijevna River which forms one boundary of the large vineyard. Here I get a close view of the limestone and rocky soil. As these women talk in tandem, clarifying and enhancing each other as they reveal their passion and the fruits of years of research.

While owners and winemakers of small boutique wineries ooze passion when discussion their wine, vineyards and work, the passion these women exude is in their research and discoveries. They are like treasure hunters wandering the small country looking for riches in its vines— native vines.

The only way they could do this is with the resources and money of a large organization. Over a period of some five years, they scoured the wine-growing regions of Montenegro searching for grapevines—any grape vines. They would put their ampelography skills to work analyzing the DNA and identifying, classifying and cataloging the plants.

Over the years that found 512 vines and working with the Wine Institute in La Rioja in Spain, they added these to an existing database of 4,000 grapevine varieties—the most comprehensive in the world. After an extensive analysis, they discovered that 63 grapevines (genotypes) did not exist.

They found 63 grapevines that are unique and only found in Montenegro. This means that Dr. Maras’s and Plantaze’s years-long treasure hunt yielded important riches for the country’s national heritage. Not only did they discover Vranac was first grown here, but another 63 varieties are not grown anywhere else in the world. Imagine finding 63 new types of animals not found anywhere else. These women are expressive and passionate as they share this info with me.

We continue our drive through the vineyards until we come to a four-story building that probably hasn’t seen new paint or any renovation since the vineyard was planted over 40 years ago and climb to a viewpoint on the roof where we gaze over the expansive vineyards.

“We can only see about 70 percent of the vineyard,” Jovana tells me. “Over here are some of the original plantings.” She points to a block of vines with thick trunks yet thin of leaves. “We are replanting many of the old vines.”

We wind our way through more of the vast vineyard, and soon we’re driving down a wide road, lined with young olive trees. “They built this as an airport runway,” Anita explains as we drive toward Šipčanik Wine Cellar, one of Plantaze’s three wine production facilities and cellars.
We stop alongside a block of wines.

“This is the national collection,” Jovana explains. “We’ve propagated and grafted the 63 new varietals and planted them here.” Plantaze also has about 40 hectares dedicated to growing and testing rootstocks and grafts.

“We saved them from disappearing,” she smiles.

A vine from Plantaze’s National Collection, a vineyard designed to protect the viticultural heritage of Montenegro and its indigenous wines. Some of these grapes may never make it to a bottle of wine, but I have been assured some others will. Stay tuned for more history as Montenegro and Plantaze continue to study, research, and experiment.

I realize this work is beyond the business of growing grapes, making wine and marketing it around the world. Again, this is something only a large organization with money and resources could manage. Plantaze is not just the biggest winery and viticulture operation in Montenegro, but it is also majority owned by the Montenegrin government, along with two other minority investors.

They explain that currently they are not planting larger plots or planning to make wine from any of the 63 new varietals, but they are evaluating the plants and hope to consider new types of wine in the future.

We drive past a security gate and a long tourist train that reminds me of Disneyland. It ushers visitors through tours of the vineyards. I’m happy to be in this car with two of the scientists that are not only driving me around Plantaze but are also driving the preservation of Montenegro’s viticulture heritage.

We roll up to the Šipčanik Wine Cellar, a massive subterranean cave that was built as an underground aircraft hanger for the Yugoslav People’s Army. Our voices and sounds of our shoes stepping echo in the cavernous space. We pass a small retail shop and then dozens of large oak barrels.

Everything is big at Plantaze—the flagship grape Vranac, translated as Dark Horse, yields a full-bodied, near black wine with great character and structure.

These cork and barrel themed tram ride takes visitors through the vast vineyards of Plantaze in Montenegro.

We are more than 30 meters (100 feet) underground. The cave is 365 meters long (a quarter of a mile), 70 meters wide (230 feet), and 20 meters high (65 feet). They store and age two million liters of wine in Šipčanik, in bottles and barrels comprising about 80 percent French oak, 15 percent American oak, and about 5 percent Croatian oak.

There are dozens of tables made from oak barrels, and a tastefully decorated tasting room with a kitchen can accommodate about 50 people. We belly up to one of the barrel tables and taste Plantaze’s entry-level wines, beginning with Krstač, a clean, aromatic white wine with lovely fruit and minerality. It’s also a grape that isn’t grown anywhere else—only in Montenegro.

The tasting areas of Plantaze’s Šipčanik Wine Cellar are designed to handle large groups in an attractive setting. Yes, there is wine in all those large casks.

Then I’m offered a Pinot Blanc that has more structure and viscosity, and the final white is a Chardonnay that is as good as any entry level I’ve tried in California.

I taste two reds, a Cabernet Sauvignon and the pride of Montenegro, the Vranac, Plantaze’s Pro Corde brand. Anita explains that in their research they have identified seven natural clones—the best of Montenegrin Vranac, and these are now certified. This is a substantial step to protecting the heritage and quality of Vranac and also against fraudulent vines.

All the wines are well made, but what surprises me, even more, is that none of these wines cost more than five Euros or less than six dollars. Wines of this quality cost more than twice as much in the United States.

After we hop back in the car, retrieve my motorcycle and travel to the other side of Podgorica to the oldest wine cellar of Plantaze. Known as Ljeskopolje Wine Cellar, it is quite a contrast to Šipčanik. Not only does it have a smaller capacity, about 400,000 liters, but I can also feel history clinging to its dusty cellars and brick walls. It’s here I meet another Plantaze colleague, Vesna Kodzulovic, the chief technologist at Plantaze’s historic Ljeskopolje Wine Cellar

Here at Ljeskopolje, Plantaze vinifies its premium brands including the Stari Podrum, the flagship of Plantaze’s wines. They also make experimental and trial wines. Set a small neighborhood down a narrow street, Ljeskopolje is three levels, one in the basement and two above ground. There are stainless steel and concrete fermentation tanks that haven’t been used in some 40 years. There are massive oak barrels with 10,000-liter capacities lining a room that also houses dozens of barrique barrels.

 

 

The massive doors of Plantaze’s Ljeskopolje old wine cellar creek loudly as they are opened and are crafted with wine-themed carvings.

The old key that takes you into the Stari Podrum Barrique Room is featured on the bottles of Plantaze’s ultra premium wines: The Stari Podrum Vranac, Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Vranac (photo courtesy of Plantaze)

One of the oldest archive wines available at Plantaze is the 1979 Vranac.

More than 19,000 bottles are in the library archive at Plantaze Ljeskopolje Cellar.

This old bottle reveals the origin and history of Plantaze as a state-owned company. Here the label states first, it’s wine made in Titograd, the name of the Podgorica before independence, and that it’s a product of Yugoslavia.

From the Archive Library at Ljeskopolje, Vesna shows me a 1979 bottle of Vranac that was designed and labeled for export to the United Kingdom as Monte Cheval Vranac.

In the basement, behind a locked iron door is a library archive of 19,000 bottles dating back to Plantaze’s early history, many bottled years before Plantaze planted the Cemovsko polje vineyard. They show me a bottle of 1979 Vranac that is delicately wrapped in cellophane. “We have wines dating back to 1974 here, but we discovered 6,000 bottles of the 1979. It’s a special bottle and people can buy it.”

I’m treated to a handful of barrel samples collected into nondescript bottles without labels, only a small sticker identifies the wine inside each bottle.

Here they produce three white wines and six red wines. Most of the wines are from very low yielding vineyards, some less than six tons per hectare. Today I get to try 2012 and 2013 red wines that have yet to be bottled.

A Petite Verdot made with a soft touch that is inky black, and a unique French varietal known as Marselan. It’s the first time I’ve sampled wine made from a new grape varietal created in the French town of Marseillan in the 1960s by enologist, Paul Truel. He crossed Cabernet Sauvignon with Grenache to create it.

I’ve never seen a Marselan, but some wineries from Languedoc in France offer it, and in 2007 the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) certified for labeling and sale as a varietal wine in the USA.

I like Plantaze’s Marselan. It’s well rounded, refined tannins, and a very long finish with flavors of black cry, mocha, and spice. I also try the 2012 Stari Podrum Cabernet Sauvignon, which is layered with gobs of black fruit, berry, coffee, and spice.

Next up is the yet to be released 2013 Stari Podrum Vranac. The current release of Cabernet Sauvignon received a Gold Medal from Decanter Magazine while the Vranac received gold for the 2011 vintage.

I’m treated to barrel samples of some wines that still are not offered by Plantaze, but the company is experimenting with.

Deep in the cellars of Ljeskopolje, I taste wines the Jovana and Vesna—thanks to Anita for the photos!

Finally, I’m treated to a barrel sample of Kratosija, the father of Vranac and the same grape as Primitivo, Zinfandel, and the Croatian Crljenak Kaštelanski. With brighter fruit, a hint of spiced herbs, and strawberry compote, it’s lighter than the others but packs a punch that satisfies—especially after the line up I’ve sampled.

The wines are young and crafted for aging, but I’m seduced and fascinated by the quality of all the wines from Plantaze. Vranac will age for 15 years, so I imagine how all these wines will evolve. From the entry level to these ultra-premium wines made in the old Ljeskopolje cellar, the company offers quality wine at strategic price points. But I’m also thinking about the ride back to Becici, where I’m staying one more night before heading to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

As we bid our farewells, they hand me the bottle of Vranac, filled with a few ounces of Petite Verdot to keep the bottle fresh and full as I ride over the mountains. It’s always a sad day when I say goodbye, but the road calls me, and these women have vital work to continue. So it’s goodbye until the next time.

Onward!

Anita, Vesna, and Jovana join for one last photo before our long goodbyes! Thanks for a great lesson and tasting in Montenegro and Plantaze!

History, Passion, and Generations of Spirit & Wine in Montenegro

The view of Lake Slano from above and the road that twists and turns through the mountains between the Bay of Kotor and Niksic in northern Montenegro.

My plan is to meet Goran Radevic at the Radevic Estate Winery at 2:30. I carry all my bags down the steps from my Admiral Apartments in Perast. There’s an ice cream delivery truck blocking my bike. It’s a sign I should sit and have an espresso, or two, and enjoy the view before heading toward the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.

I go the long way instead of riding through Budva or taking the tunnel. The views of the northern part of the Bay of Kotor are stunning and reveal hidden bays and other towns clinging to the hillsides. There are few cars, and with sweeping turns and perfect tarmac, it’s a joy to be riding.

I wind my way toward Niksic, and as I descend into the eastern valley, I am treated with views of Lake Slano, and the many dark green islands that dot the landscape. The lake isn’t natural, but that doesn’t diminish its beauty. It was formed in 1950 as a result of a recently constructed dam and the Perucica hydroelectric power station.

I love stopping by roadside stands where enterprising and very patient locals wait for passersby to stop and buy the locally grown and made treats. Here above Lake Slano the funny and gregarious merchant doesn’t speak English but has plenty of passion and a smile to go with!

About 15 kilometers north of Podgorica, just as the dark clouds hovering above leak drops of rain on Doc and me, my GPS guides me off the main road, through a few tiny towns, and winds me around a massive corn processing plant. I guess I must be close. I’m happy that I’ll be at the winery before the drops turn into a rainstorm.

The road follows along narrow-gauge railroad tracks, and the foliage grows denser while the road narrows. Corn fields rise above me, and my gut tells me I should either be on the other side of the river which runs to the west, or the railroad tracks to the right. I feel like I’m entering more rural countryside rather than the outskirts of the capital. So I stop at a minuscule store and ask for help. Nobody knows Radevic, but they agree I’m on the right road.

Ten minutes later my GPS tells me I’ve arrived. I notice vines outside a house along the river, but it hardly looks like the photos on the Radevic website. So I call Goran for help. I follow his directions but get lost again. He tells me to ride past the corn processing plant, and soon I’m back at that tiny store. Goran meets me there, and I follow him to the real Radevic Estate.

We cross over railroad tracks and ride up a gravel road for about 300 meters. An automatic gate opens as I drive onto the estate which consists of three or four structures situated around a large stone estate, the building that graces the label of the estate wines.

Goran Redevic exudes passion and quality as he takes me through the meticulous and clean Radevic Estate Winery & Cellar.

“For three years I have waited for the permit for the sign,” Goran tells me. I sense he’s annoyed that people have a hard time finding the property “It’s already made,” he asserts swiping through a few photos of it on his phone.

He apologizes and tells me that “the roads are not nice, traffic is horrible, there’s all this trash—and this is the first impression of Montenegro—but this is not really Montenegro.”

Thunder booms and crackles as we talk outside the wine cellar and winery.

The Radevic family, or clan, lived on this property dating back to 1604.

But Goran left the area after completing one year of mandatory military service. He studied medicine in Belgrade, the capital of the former Yugoslavia republic. Trained as a trauma and emergency room (ER) doctor, he first moved to China where he continued his education in acupuncture and neuroscience while learning to write and speak Chinese.

Radevic Estate is a gorgeous home built of stone and like the great estates of Bordeaux, a drawing of it graces the label of Radevic Estate wines.

“Like you, Allan,” he relates, “I wanted to travel the world.” He moved to South Africa where for four years he worked as an emergency doctor. He then started the first emergency trauma center in Oman before settling down and serving Her Majesty’s Service as a doctor on the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. During the eight years, he lived on the Cayman’s he met fell in love and married Renee, an American living in the Caymans, the second marriage for both.

“I was on a treadmill,” Goran reveals. Explaining his belief if something didn’t change he’d burn out or the stress would kill him.

In the fall of 2005, Hurricane Ivan nearly destroyed the Cayman Islands. The storm demolished his home. Devastated and with two young children from the new marriage, Goran didn’t abandon patients and those injured in the hurricane. Instead, he stayed several months and provided medical care for the locals.

Later, the couple moved to the United States and then to Goran’s homeland in Montenegro where he tended to old vines and planted new on property outside the Montenegro capital, Podgorica that has been in the family to 1604.

“We are the 26th generation on this land,” he tells me.

The hillside estate vineyard gently slopes down to the new wine cellar completed in 2013, and next to the estate home that is featured on the Radevic wine label.

When Goran and Renee moved to Montenegro, there were centuries-old buildings on the property. It wasn’t feasible to restore them. So the first building Goran built was a garage with a small apartment above. It was in this garage in 2009 that Goran made the first vintage of Radevic Estate wines. He jokes, “yes, for three years I made garage wine right here.”

“I had ten bins,” Goran explains. “They were 1,000 liters each, and I had to punch down with the hands. To break the cake,” he says referring the cap, or the skins that rise to the top of the juice during fermentation.

Goran tells me that he learned to make wine from his grandfather, a priest and who lived on this land until he was 103 years old. “My grampa.” Goran explains, “is responsible for my love of grapes and winemaking.” Goran was grafting grape vines before he could read and write. This passion for wine followed him through the years.

To find relief and peace from the stress of his job as an emergency room and trauma doctor, Goran would dream of living on land with a small vineyard and a small house and spend days working in the vineyards. For vacations, he would always travel to the famous wine regions of the world. He would ask questions, observe winemaking techniques, and taste wine.

Today Radevic Estate harvests 45 tons of grapes which produce about 24,000 bottles of wine They also bottles a small production of port, brandies and soon a cognac-inspired brandy that will spend five years in the barrel and bottled in an elegant Chanel-inspired bottle without a label—only etched.

A beautiful “cognac” from Radevic Estate will be released next year in this elegant bottle—sadly the first bottling is completely sold out by pre-orders.

Later, he hands me a glass of the “cognac” from the barrel. It’s graceful and smooth; pure, and clean, one of the best tasting cognacs I’ve had.

As I snap pictures, and the clouds move to the distant sounds of thunder, Goran explains his philosophy for his wine—and his life.

“No chemicals is rule number one,” he insists “Look around here, there are no weeds. We will not rape this land. No herbicides. No pesticides.”

He points to the vineyard just 20 meters away from where we stand.

“My ancestors spilled blood on this land, I will not destroy it with these poisons,” his voice dips to a whisper, with passionate expressiveness.

“My grandma, Janica died in 1999,” Goran shares more of the story of this land, “She gave birth to nine children and buried all of them. They were part of the resistance.”

When the communists came to get her to sign papers to expropriate her property to the state, she met them with a gun. She refused to sign the documents and told the soldiers if you kill me I’ll kill you. When the state began restoring property rights to previous owners, it stunned them to discover the deed to the Radevic property was never signed over.

Is it Ivan or is it Goran who had the idea to ask visitors to wear antispectic medical-grade booties before entering the winery? Hmmmmm?

I can see a bit of his grandmother’s toughness and insistence in Goran as he guides me through the wine cellar, fermentation and barrel rooms. But first, he hands me a pair of light blue booties, the kind that surgeons wear in the operating room. “It has been raining, and there are a lot of sheep droppings around here,” he explains and then blames his enologist and consulting winemaker for the insistence, though after spending so much quality time with him, I’m betting that is just his story— he’s the insistent one here.

Goran is like a proud father as he walks me through the meticulously clean winery with towering sparkling stainless steel fermentation tanks, explaining the details and decisions involving winemaking, equipment choice, and environmental controls of his cellar.

Goran tells me that the products he chooses to use in his winery are like the United Colors of Benetton: Bulgarian craftsmanship, computers from Italy, bottles from Italy, corks from France, corkwood from Spain, American Oak, and stainless steel from Finland.

A boutique shop packed with great wine, brandies, and locally crafted products available at Radevic Estate.

As we walk through the winery, with its state-of-the-art equipment, efficient design, and organization I can see Goran has invested significantly in his passion and dream. There’s a lot of love here, too.

“My wife is allergic to sulfites,” Goran tells me. “We don’t use sulfur or sulfites in our wine.”

Renee Radevic is a beekeeper and through a small store on the estate she sells natural honey, oils, and health, beauty and handmade products made by neighbors and others in the community.

He shows me a few old bottles of wine that are dusty and with mold. “There are three types of mold: black, red and white,” I feel like I’m in a science lesson as he pinches a bit of white from the lip of one bottle. “White mold is very desirable. In France,” he explains, “in some cellars, the white mold clings to bottles like a beard on an old man,” he hesitates, looks at me, “Let the mold grow.”

Good mold is white. “Let the mold grow!”

Tucked into the back of the winery is a small humidifier with additional measurement instruments. It’s obvious this guy is serious about controlling the environment. This perfection and passion with such a low production could define what makes for a true artisanal and boutique winery.

“My mouth is dry, it’s time to drink.”

Before we taste wine, we must taste grappa—brandy—lovely!

We walk into an alcove in the cellar designed for relaxing and tasting. As we pass a long row of barrels, stacked two high Goran points to the information that’s burned into the heads, or covers, of the barrels. “These are number eleven,” referring to the profile of the barrel, or the amount of toast or oakiness that results from curing (burning) the barrels during the coopering process. He tells me that one (1) is the most toast or oak, and ten (10) is the least amount. It’s the toast that can impart flavor to wines during the barrel aging process.

“I asked them to create a new profile for me—eleven (11).” He points to the number 11 burned into the barrel. Radevic uses only American oak for aging its wines.

We sit down at a circular table, and in the center is an elevated tray containing several bottles of brandies, also known as grappas, rake, or schnapps. Radevic makes all its brandies from pure fruit: grapes, apples, plum, quince, and pomegranate.

“My wife is a wine lover, I love brandy—grappa,” he asks me which I’d like to try first.

It takes a lot of fruit to make just a few bottles of brandy. He sources the wild fruit from all over Montenegro, explaining that 2,500 kilograms of fruit  (just under 3 tons) yield only 60 liters (15 gallons) of brandy.

I try the apple, quince, and pear. He uses wild pomegranate to make a liquor which clocks in at about 22% alcohol while the others are about 42%.

In addition to the six fruit brandies, Radevic Estate bottles two white wines, a rose, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Vranac, two ports and soon that cognac.

I love the family recipe and homemade pepper sauce/salsa!

Goran shares a beautiful cheese and charcuterie plate made of all local products to pair with his excellent wines.

 

The bottle and label of Radevic exudes quality and class.

Custom-designed stemware made from lead-free crystal in Slovenia.

We move to a bar area that overlooks the barrel room as he pulls a tray of charcuterie, cheese, olives, bread and a delicious sauce or puree made from roasted peppers. We taste his wines from lead-free crystal glasses that are specially designed and manufactured for him in Slovenia.

He pours me tastes of the wine but not for him. “Today my limit is three brandies,” he explains. The chardonnay is young and elegant. I’m most interested in the Vranac, which is an indigenous grape to Montenegro and the Balkan peninsula. It’s creamy, thick, and with lots of black fruit, berry, and spice and with a deep dark ruby color.

I explain I’m fascinated by the indigenous varietals and am pleased to find so many winemakers respecting the heritage of the farms, fields, and varieties.

They export many of the Radevic wines to Europe and the USA.

Goran explains that he took an early vintage of Radevic Estate to New York where a sommelier enjoyed the wine but suggested he upgrade the bottle and label. Goran hands me the original bottle and then the current bottle. The new bottle weighs more than twice the original and is embossed with the Radevic emblem, similar to the bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Everything is first-class at Radevic. And it shows.

He shows me a special bottle of Vranac that is packaged in a wooden box. It’s a co-branded bottle that is exclusively sold at the Aman resort on the Sveti Štefan islet on the coast. Aman resorts are beyond five-star and cater to uber-wealthy, jet set, and celebrity clientele. With resorts all over the world, each location chooses a local product and packages it under the Aman brand name—everywhere except in Montenegro where the Aman name is shared with Radevic Estate.

Aman Resorts, the uber-luxury resort group chose Radevic Estate Vranac as the ideal product to represent the culture of Montenegro.

“They wanted my Vranac,” Goran explains, “but they didn’t want to use my name or logo. I refused. I won’t give up my brand—this is my life savings.” For two years the Aman lawyers battled with Goran and his lawyer. Radevic held strong, to its conviction. After all of this negotiation, Goran got his way. He points to the RR logo near the base of the bottle.

It’s a testament to Goran’s investment, philosophy, and passion that a five-star, high-quality brand chooses Radevic Estate Vranac as the ideal local Montenegrin product to showcase Montenegro.

As we share stories, sip wine and brandy, I learn that a horrific accident that almost took Goran’s life just a few years ago.

“How many people you know survived after getting hit by a train?” Goran asks.

He picked up his daughter from flute lessons on a Saturday afternoon in 2014 when his car stalled on the railroad tracks just down the driveway when a train plowed into the car. The same railroad tracks we crossed just a few hours ago.

“I used to be a heavy smoker,” he divulges. His right lung was crushed, was bleeding in the brain, broke all his ribs, his sternum, and his right arm was paralyzed. For eighteen days he was in a coma. His daughter, who was also in the car came out with just a cut and eighteen stitches.

Today his right-hand shakes as he holds it up to show me.

“I came back,” he explains the dangerous surgery that brought him back to life.

We toast. “This is life, Allan,” he looks at me, smiles. “Enjoying life, the life. Life is to short to be wasted on stupid politics and stupid people.”

“I live with beautiful land, beautiful nature. People around here worry—they want to be in the EU. I would rather be Switzerland, on our own.”

“After this accident, I really see life is too short,” the conversation turns serious and then philosophical.

“What is important, Allan is health. You cannot buy it, yet you start appreciating it only when you start losing it.” he continues.

“The second thing, that’s important, is family happiness. Number three is having a few friends to share—that’s all you need—to share good and bad things.” We toast again.

“That is what is important, the rest is bullshit.”

 

Doc and me outside the estate before Goran guides me to a nearby hotel and local restaurant in the capital, Podgorica.