Monday, June 1, 2009

Finishing up in Montenegro

Lunch in Mostar

On a whim, and perhaps because we weren't thinking straight, we decided to go to Mostar. This is something we had said we could do on our way up to Split on our way home; it's a little out of the way, but in the right direction. Instead, we decided to make a day trip of it. Jack had suggested we try the quiet little border crossing past the tomb of the Napoleonic War soldier, but we missed the turnoff to that and ended up at the big border crossing with the line. For once, however, I did not miss the turnoff to a small road that runs more or less parallel to the coast road and we had a beautiful view from there. In Croatia, the roads are in better shape than in Montenegro; you get the impression that EU funds have already been spent. Unfortunately, I misread the map again and we ended up down on the coast road just past Dubrovnic airport, but we managed to find another turn to get us to the Bosnia-Herzegovina border and to the scenic road up in the mountains. There are more signs of the recent war, here: homes abandonned, homes with shell shots not yet patched up. The closer to Mostar, the more traces there are.

We know of Mostar because of the bridge. This single-arch steep bridge symbolized the divided Christian and Moslem communities and when it was destroyed, it was considered the bottom of the war, so of course, when it was rebuilt, that symbolized the end of it all. This was just over 10 years ago -- that's all! Would we have made a detour to visit Mostar if there had not been a famous battle culminating in the destruction of the bridge? Maybe. The old bridge must have been a tourist must-see. Now, you get to see the new version of the old bridge. There's another, smaller, new "old" bridge, the "crooked bridge", which is said to have served as the model for
the larger bridge. We had lunch at a little restaurant with a view of the little bridge. After lunch, we walked a few meters farther and saw the famous bridge. We walked over it and it is very steep, so steep there are raised stones every step to brake you (or, I suppose in the old days, to brake a cart). It's interesting, but it is brand new, so the interest resides in the symbolism.

Probably Mostar had an productive economy before the war. You can see vacant factories and an industrial zone. It looks like Mostar's economy is only tourism. From where we managed to park the car down to the river, which is a beautiful river, was like walking up the rue de Steinkerque in Paris, the main street in Lourdes, the hill on Mont St. Michel. It was like running the gauntlet of souvenir sellers on the way to the Great Wall in China, or at an Egyptian temple. It always makes me uncomfortable. There's the constant call of people telling you look at their wares; you can't stop to look even if you think there might be something of interest because if you stop, you're hooked. And here, in particular, there's the constant reminder that the old bridge was destroyed. I don't thing events like that should be forgotten, but if you buy an image of the old bridge as it was, or what was left of it, will that help the communities get on with their lives? There were other souvenirs, too: chess sets, babouches, key chains and so on. Altogether too much. That being said, the town was full of tourists, so whatever I may think of such artificial souvenirs, it works. It's not yet the tourist season for foreigners, so most of the cars were local and we didn't hear many people speaking other languages. I did hear French, though, when a guided group stopped at the bridge.

As I said, this was a day trip -- about 350 km. round trip. We came back down the coast road. The sky was incredibly clearer than first time. The water was deep blue.

The Ostrag Monastery

Jack had suggested, in the notes he sent to us, that we should take a mini-bus up to Ostrag -- the drive is a bit difficult and we would get more information than if we went on our own. This is the only time we've been disappointed. The tour is not a Black Mountain tour; they simply sell tickets for the tour that another agency runs.

The mini-bus and driver were waiting for us when we walked up to the bus station a little before 6 a.m. The driver did not seem to recognize our tickets and did not seem to speak English, but I assured him that we had been told it was indeed Trend Travel that was taking us and that his bus said Trrnd Travel and Ostrag Monastery (in Cyrillic, but still I could read that). So, we got on and we picked up a woman at the other end of the town. She sat up front next to the driver so I thought she might be a guide, but she didn't say anything to us beyond hello. After crossing on
the ferry, we picked up another woman and her daughter and a Russian couple. The bus was full and we were on our way, but there didn't seem to be any guide at all. There was not any communication at all until we stopped at 8:30 for a cup of coffee. The daughter, a young woman in her late teens, early twenties, spoke a little English and we exchanged a few words, but not about the monastery.

The road had been all right up to the coffee stop. There were a couple of unpaved patches, but passing was still uneventful. From that point, however, the road is really narrow and in bad shape. There's a lot of traffic and passing is doable, of course, but not easy. Still, regular cars make the climb all the way up to the monastery. There are some stops along the way. There's the nun's monastery, with guest housing and a chapel, and another chapel with an outdoor baptism platform. Many people park down at these places and walk up to the monastery; it is a very steep climb up stairs through the woods.

We drove all the way up. We followed the crowd and went in, but after climbing and
climbing stairs in a tower, we stopped and went down. That, it turns out, was a mistake, because the chapel is at the top of the stairs. We knew there was supposed to be a chapel, but thought we had made a mistake by going up the tower. Here is where it would have been nice to be a bit guided. We looked at the books on sale (with icons and beads), but they weren't for tourists; they were meant for pilgrims, so there was nothing in English or French. Our driver had not said what time to be back, so we hung around the bus until everyone else showed up.

On the way down we stopped at the chapel where a bunch of young children were being baptized and then at the nuns' monastery. Back at the place where we had had our coffee earlier we had lunch and then it was time for the long drive back to Herceg Novi.

A Beach Day

We decided to stay an extra day in Herceg Novi and then take the ferry from Split to Ancuna in
Italy and from there just take the autostrada straight up towards Milan and then on to home. It
was a sort of folly to think that we'd want to tarry in Italy. Italy is a whole other trip. I think the sticker shock is what convinced us. In Montenegro everything costs about half of what we spend in France, maybe even more than half off. Italy is the same as France, maybe a little more.

Anyway, today was supposed to be a day to relax, go to the beach (not what I would really call a beach, but rather a concrete esplanade along the waterfront). We went to see the Roman mosaics from the 3rd century first. That's on the road to Kotor, in Risan, before you get to Perast.

There are two sites pointed out on the road, but Jack warned us that the prehistoric rock paintings were no longer visible, having been blacked out by kids who lit a fire in the cave. The signs to the Roman villa mosaics are poorly placed, but we stopped and asked our way. They are right next to the hospital, actually. It's not as vast as the 4th century villa in Sicily and the mosaics are not as elaborate or elegant, but they are still worthy of a visit. It just started raining on the way home and although we managed to get out again during a pause in the storm, it's been raining on and off all day. So, a relaxing day, yes. Beach day, no.

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