BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA, 30th May – 3rd June 2017
Before saying goodbye to Jakov in the morning I suggested we all have a game of table-football in the bar. I’d noticed the table the night before. It was a proper table-football table, the kind with metal players with paint peeling off them, where the ball got stuck in between the rows often and someone had to reach in and give it a flick. Jakov’s competitive nature was revealed once more, and the game was taken extremely seriously, at least by him, and me. It was Dea and me versus Jakov and Jacob and it was an exciting contest. As the game went on Dea and I edged ahead, much to Jakov’s dismay. Eventually we claimed a narrow victory. Jakov was clearly a little frustrated by the loss, and he seemed to know where the game went wrong, as he then requested Jacob stand aside. Without the handicap of a tall American keeping goal he took control of all of his team and showed off what years of practice could do, as he easily beat Dea and me in the rematch.
Another nice day of cycling followed. We were now passing through Croat areas, and it was quite a contrast from the war-torn ruins we’d seen in the Serb areas. Now we passed many nice houses, big, modern, freshly-painted and out of keeping with what had gone before. The road grew busier as the level of habitation increased, and a long, hot climb was made even less enjoyable by the trucks we now had to share our road with. Jacob went on ahead again and waited for us at the top. He was really a very different sort of world cyclist from us and the way he skipped up to the top did make me think he had a point about the advantages of travelling light. He could cover ground much faster, and that was an advantage for him, as he had a lot of ground to cover. We’d met him in the midst of his circular tour of Europe, taking in almost every country. After that he has plans to go down the west side of Africa, then back up the east, before heading for Asia. His goals are certainly ambitious, and, as I told him, “Even I think you’re crazy!”
We detoured around a town called Tomislavgrad and made camp in a field a short while later. Jacob’s tent was a small one-man thing, and it looked comically tiny next to our oversized three-person gazebo. In fact I thought it a marvellous trick that such a tall man fitted inside. Jacob had his tent up in no time and, as Dea and I struggled with the daily construction project that was the assembly of our own, I happened to glance over at the wrong time. Jacob’s tent clearly wasn’t big enough to act as a changing room and he had decided to pull down his cycling shorts and reveal his butt to the world (and by world, I mean me). This was not the first night that this had happened. It all brought back memories of Andreas, an Austrian man I’d cycled with in Turkmenistan, who was similarly uninhibited, and had earned a starring role in my book as a result of his nudity.
“Do you remember in my book?” I asked Jacob, as he pulled on some underwear.
“The Austrian guy?” Jacob knew very well what I was talking about. I had to laugh.
“I think you’re trying a little too hard to get in the second book.”
The next day we made an unusually early start. Our goal was to get to Mostar, an historic town where we had booked accommodation, 75 kilometres away. We were on the main road, and for 50 kilometres everything went okay. The road was busy and narrow enough that I worried about our safety, but traffic was not overly excessive and we made good progress. Then we reached a town called Siroki Brijeg, and traffic became… well… overly excessive. It was bumper to bumper and there was no shoulder. There was a footpath that we could ride on to navigate the town, but there was still over 20 kilometres to go to Mostar, and the main road just seemed too dangerous to me once the footpath ended. Jacob had no such concerns and, keen to get to his guest house, he headed off alone for this last stretch. Dea and I headed to a cafe to use the wifi and look for an alternative route, but there was no obvious one that didn’t involve long detours over steep mountains. Dea was keen to get to Mostar, take a shower, and relax, and said she wanted to just take the main road and get it done. I relented, and we headed out of town.
We didn’t get far. We stopped and took a breather just out of town and as I looked at the road ahead and the traffic I really began to worry. There were plenty of big trucks and the road was narrow, there was no shoulder, few places to dive out of the way of the speeding vehicles. It was a dangerous place to be on a bicycle. Dea still wanted to carry on and get it done but I had such a bad feeling about this road that I actually began to cry. I wasn’t crying because I was scared of the big bad road myself (although I was scared of the big bad road), I was crying because I didn’t want Dea to be in danger. It occurred to me that she was only really here doing this because of me. If anything happened to her it would be my fault, I would blame myself. I thought of the promises I’d made to her family that I would look after her, do everything that I could to keep her safe. And this road was not safe. So I cried.
And my crying worked. “Let’s take the other way,” Dea said, soothing me. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes.”
It was good that she said that, because the other way took quite a long time. We later found out that it took Jacob only 45 minutes to cycle from Siroki Brijeg to Mostar. It took us five hours.
It took us five hours but it was one hell of an adventure. First we went north of the main road on a tiny road that went up a steep climb and, while I use the term ‘steep climb’ quite a lot, this really was a steep climb. It was such a steep climb that we really should have used climbing equipment, and carabinered ourselves to the cliff every now and then for safety reasons. But it was a nice road, even more so when it flattened out at the top, and even more so when it went back downhill again.
We crossed over the main road and took some very small roads south of it that were marked on the map on my phone. It was a bit strange that they were marked on the map on my phone, because they weren’t actually roads. They were just a place where someone had driven a car through a field. We kept following them though, agreeing that this sure was more interesting than the main road. Then we rejoined a proper gravel track, which was great until it crossed a stream, or more accurately the stream crossed it, or even more accurately the gravel track and the stream combined and merged into one wet, gravelly entity. We needed to ford this entity and to do this we walked our bikes through the fairly deep water. Our front panniers floated up as if they might go off their own way at any moment, but the water was cool and refreshing on our skin. It was so cool and refreshing, in fact, that once our bikes were safely across I left mine and waded back into the water, collapsing backwards and merging myself into the cool, refreshing, wet, gravelly, stream/track/cyclist entity. It was lovely.
Next we tried our luck on a road that was, we think, technically closed. It was completely empty, absolutely nothing on it. It seemed as if they’d been building a new road and then the money ran out, so it was never quite finished, and as we cycled onwards along it we worried that we might not make it out the other side, but luckily it was finished just enough for us to make our way through. And then suddenly there it was below us, Mostar. We had made it! And how we had enjoyed this side-trip adventure of ours. Dea was smiling, saying it had been the right decision to come this way. We’d had five hours of interesting, adventurous adventuring rather than one hour of life-threatening dangerous danger. Taking the road less travelled had been worth it.
We descended down into the valley and made our way along the river into the old town where we found ourselves at the Hajde Guesthouse. A man with frizzy hair welcomed us in a manner that was mostly friendly and a little bit crazy. He had blue hands. “I’ve been eating mulberries from the tree all afternoon,” he explained. “I’ve been waiting for you for hours.”
Ah yes, the expected time of arrival thing. I’d got it a bit wrong again. I offered my apologies.
“Oh don’t worry, I fell asleep anyway. It was nice. I had a good sleep.”
The man had a name that I could not pronounce, with letters that I don’t know, but Dea thinks his name was Javar. He showed us inside. Our room was incredible. There was a bed and a seating area made out of pallets and covered in cushions and it was all decorated in the most wonderful style. There was also a balcony that we could use, with a hammock and view of the river and the old town with all the minarets of all the mosques, for we were suddenly back in Muslim territory. It was almost too good to be true. Javar left us to it and Dea took a shower while I went out to the balcony alone to lie in the hammock and read a book about Mostar. The hammock was a flat one. I laid down in it, and it immediately spun me around and spat me out onto the hard floor with a thud, in a way that made me glad I was alone.
A little later we were invited downstairs to share dinner with Javar and his sister, Nadia. They had only just begun this guest house project and we were in fact only their second guests. They were really so nice to us, the latest in a long line of good and kind-hearted people we met in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The food was delicious and once again there was a lot of home-made stuff for us to enjoy. Jacob came over and joined us. He was staying at a different guest house and would be going a different way from us after Mostar, but we’d arranged to meet up one last time. Along with Javar we walked into town to see the old bridge lit up. Javar was doing his best to be our tour guide, telling us about the town, but once we got down near the old bridge he met some of his friends and went off to have a drink and a smoke. That left just the three of us to admire the bridge before saying our goodbyes. It was the end of our time cycling with Jacob and that was a shame. He had been good company, and had added an extra something to our time in Bosnia, a country we were going to remember fondly for a long time.
The next day Dea and I returned into town to see it by daytime, but it was largely just streets filled with tourists and shops selling tourist trinkets. At the old bridge we saw the famous bridge jumpers. A few men stood on the bridge waiting and eventually, when they’d collected enough money from the tourists who wanted to see them dive into the river below, they would jump. We saw only one guy jump once, and, after all the anticipation, I suspect some of the tourists might have regretted paying. It was after all just a guy jumping into a river.
One thing did catch our eye and that was some photos of Mostar from the 1990s, before, during and after the war. This old bridge, built by the Ottomans way back when was, it turned out, not that old. It was destroyed during the war, and the photos dated 1994 showed an empty space over the river where it should have stood. The old bridge we now saw was in fact a replica, built way back in 2004. Our interest in the photos caught the attention of a nearby stall holder, an older man who came to talk with us. He was an interesting fellow. He’d lived in Italy for a while but chose to move back here, telling us, “In Italy they have everything, but the people go to work with sad faces. Here people talk to each other, they know their neighbours, they help each other. That’s why I came back.” He had perfectly summed up one of the reasons why we liked this country so much.
We had abandoned our plans to head for Sarajevo – something to do with the elevation charts and feeling a bit too tired for hills and traffic – and instead now turned south towards Dubrovnik and the coast again. We’d found out about a new cycle route, just opened, running from Mostar to the coast, and we wanted to check it out. Following an old railway route, the EU-funded Ciro Trail promised to be flat and light on traffic, so it seemed unlikely to make me cry.
At first the Ciro Trail followed paved roads, which took us alongside a modern railway line, through a narrow gorge alongside a river. Most of the traffic was on a bigger highway, but there was still enough on our road to make it a pain having to move out of the way for them due to the narrow nature of the road. So when the option came for us to take a traffic-free section of old railway line we jumped at it.
This gravel section was hard work. The trail climbed, albeit gradually, into the mountains, and the surface was made up of quite large rocks that were not easy to cycle on. They were especially difficult for me, due to the pain I had in my ribs. It was no joke about the damage I’d done them scoring Arsenal’s spectacular scissor-kick FA Cup final winning goal. They hurt like hell. I’d bruised them for sure, and bumping up and down on the rocks was really very painful. For this reason I actually had to walk quite a lot of the trail, whispering to myself under my breath, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.” But it was still an adventure, and it took us through a dozen unlit tunnels, where hundreds of bats nested, squealing above our heads as we walked.
It was an enjoyable experience to take on this off-road section, and we thought it fantastic this cycle route has been created, though we did wonder as to how well maintained it would be, and the big rocks mean it is not recommended on a road bike, or with bruised ribs. After a while we rejoined a road, though, and for the rest of the route there was barely any traffic on it at all. It was really a pleasure to cycle, and it was a fitting end to such a great country. We spent our last night camped next to one of the many old abandoned stations along the old line, cautious still not to wander off the beaten track for fear of landmines. Bosnia’s troubled recent history was there to be seen throughout the country, but it was a country that had earned a special place in our hearts, and one we hope we will return to one day.
The quiet road continued all the way to the Croatian border, where it met with a bigger road to take us down to the coast. Even so, leaving Bosnia the border area was as primitive as any I’d seen anywhere in the world. It was just a container/shed/hut at the side of the road, with stern-looking officials approaching the cars, collecting the passports, and taking them away. ‘Here we go,’ I thought, relieved that I’d had the sense to go back and get our passports stamped when we’d entered the country, relieved that we’d stayed somewhere, got ourselves registered properly. All that reading on the British Government Travel Advice website was about to prove worthwhile. This was where it counted. We reached the front of the queue and one of the stern-looking officials walked over to us, looking all stern. We handed him our passports. He looked at the fronts, saw what countries we were from and then, without scanning them to check for our registrations, without even opening them to look for any stamps, he handed them back, and waved us on towards Croatia.
All the photos from Bosnia and Herzegovina can be viewed by scrolling through our latest Flickr album: