Dubrovnik and Balkan Side-Trips
Nestled inside its mighty ramparts is Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic.” From this remarkably preserved medieval fortress city, we venture into less-touristed corners of the former Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, we visit Mostar — war-torn in the ’90s, but bursting with promise today. In Montenegro, we sail the fjord-like Bay of Kotor and explore its mysterious, mountainous interior.
Sponza Palace (Dubrovnik)
This building, from 1522, is a combination of Renaissance (ground-floor arches) and Venetian Gothic (upstairs windows). This used to be the customs office, but now it’s an exhaustive archive of the city’s history, with temporary art exhibits and a war memorial. The poignant Memorial Room of Dubrovnik Defenders has photos of dozens of people from Dubrovnik who were killed fighting Yugoslav forces in 1991 (free, long hours daily in peak season, shorter hours off-season).
Dubrovnik’s Town Walls
Dubrovnik’s single best attraction is strolling the scenic mile-and-a-quarter around the city walls. As you meander along this lofty perch — with a sea of orange roofs on one side, and the actual sea on the other — you’ll get your bearings, peek down into secluded gardens, and snap pictures like mad of the ever-changing views. Since the walls’ opening hours change with the season, confirm them by checking signs posted at the entrance. The posted closing time indicates when the walls shut down, not the last entry — ascend well before this time if you want to make it all the way around. (If you want to linger, begin at least an hour ahead; if you’re speedy, you can ascend 30 minutes before closing time.) Because this is Dubrovnik’s top attraction, it’s extremely crowded. The walls are the most crowded from about 9:00 until 11:00, when the cruise ships are docked. There’s generally an afternoon lull in the crowds (13:00–14:00) — but that’s also the hottest time to be atop the walls. Crowds pick up again in the late afternoon (around 17:00), peaking about an hour before closing time. During busy times, your best bet is to hit the walls around 8:30, or just before 17:00 (to avoid both the worst heat and the worst crowds). Warning: The walls can get deliriously hot — all that white stone and seawater reflect blazing sunshine something fierce, and there’s virtually no shade. It’s essential to bring sunscreen, a hat, and water.
Villa Ragusa (soba run by Pero)
Villa Ragusa offers my favorite rooms for the price in Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Pero and Valerija Carević have renovated a 600-year-old house at the top of town that was damaged during the war. The five comfortable, modern rooms come with atmospheric old wooden beams, antique furniture, and thoughtful touches. There are three doubles with bathrooms (including a top-floor room with breathtaking Old Town views for no extra charge — request when you reserve) and two singles that share a bathroom.
Cold Drinks “Buža”
This bar offers, without a doubt, Dubrovnik’s most scenic spot for a drink. Perched on a cliff above the sea, clinging like a barnacle to the outside of the city walls, this is a peaceful, shaded getaway from the bustle of the Old Town...the perfect place to watch cruise ships disappear into the horizon. Buža means “hole in the wall” — and that’s exactly what you’ll have to go through to get to this place. There are actually two different Bužas; my favorite is Buža II (the older and bigger of the pair). Filled with mellow tourists and bartenders pouring wine from tiny screw-top bottles into plastic cups, Buža II comes with castaway views and Frank Sinatra ambience. This is supposedly where Bill Gates hangs out when he visits Dubrovnik. When the seats fill up — as often happens around sunset — you can order a drink at the bar and walk down the stairs to enjoy it “on the rocks”...literally. Buža I, with a different owner, is more casual, plays hip rather than romantic music, and has concrete stairs leading down to a beach on the rocks below. While lacking a bit of Buža II’s panache — and its shade — Buža I is often a bit less crowded, making it a viable alternative.
Our Lady of the Rocks Church (Perast)
In the 17th century, locals built this Baroque church on this holy site and filled it with symbols of thanks for answered prayers. Step inside to explore the collection: silver votive plaques — many of them with images of ships in storms or battles — given by appreciative sailors who survived; 1,700 silver and gold votive plaques from other grateful worshippers; 68 canvases by local Baroque painter Tripo Kokolja; and a huge collection of dried wedding bouquets given by those who had nothing else to offer (the church is a popular place for weddings). A legendary icon, which refused to budge from this spot, still caps the altar today. The faithful squeeze into the very tight space behind the altar, where a hole in the back of the structure lets them reach through and touch the original reef where the icon was found. The adjacent museum is an entertaining mishmash of items. The entry price includes a fun little tour by Davorka, Nataša, or Sandra. The collection includes a wide range of ancient artifacts, including a glass case displaying fragments dating — staggeringly — from 3,500 B.C. (found in the hills just above Perast).
Trebinje’s Orthodox Church
Overlooking the town from its hilltop perch is the striking Orthodox Church of Nova Gračanica, built to resemble the historically important Gračanica Monastery in Kosovo. If you have time, drive up to the church’s viewpoint terrace for great views over Trebinje and the valley, and step inside the church to immerse yourself in a gorgeously vibrant world of Orthodox icons.
Hiring a guide is an excellent investment to help you understand Mostar. I’ve enjoyed working with Alma Elezović, a warm-hearted Bosniak who loves sharing her city and her wartime stories with visitors. If Alma is busy, she may send you with her son Jaz (pronounced “yahz”), a well-trained guide who speaks perfect English and offers a younger generation’s perspective.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi, I’m Rick Steves back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re jumping — well, actually, he’s jumping — for maximum travel experience in Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. Thanks for joining us.
The Balkans — that troubled southeastern corner of Europe — is complex and relatively untouristed. Exploring corners of Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia, we’ll get to know the three major groups of former Yugoslavia: Croats, Serbs, and Muslims. And we’ll toss in a little fun in the sun too, here in Dubrovnik.
After a splash of Adriatic resort life, we sail a Montenegrin fjord, and share the rewards of peace in Bosnia. We see three local religions in action: Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, and Muslim. Then we head to Mostar, where we’ll finally get this guy to jump, and dine with an inspiring backdrop.
The places we’re visiting were all part of the former Yugoslavia, which broke apart in the 1990s, splitting into seven countries. We’re visiting three of them: Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. From Dubrovnik, at the southern tip of Croatia, we venture to Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor before exploring the Serbian part of Bosnia, and finishing in Mostar.
The springboard for our Balkan adventure is Dubrovnik. With its dramatic setting, it deserves its title: “Pearl of the Adriatic.”
Confined within its walls as it has been for centuries, Dubrovnik juts out from the rocky Croatian coastline looking inviting from both the land and the sea. Its central promenade is the heartbeat of the city — a thriving people zone. It’s a multi-generational celebration of life, where everybody’s out enjoying that Mediterranean knack for capping the day with an easygoing stroll.
Dubrovnik is very touristy, and understandably so. Even with all its crowds, as anywhere, back-street charm is just a few steps away. Stepped lanes help you imagine actually living here in an age before tourism dominated the economy.
The town’s imposing architecture is a reminder of its former glory. In the 15th century, the salt trade and shipbuilding made Dubrovnik a maritime power and rival to Venice.
The Sponza Palace is a fine surviving example of Dubrovnik’s Golden Age in the 15th and 16th centuries, combining both Renaissance and Venetian Gothic styles. Stepping into its stately courtyard takes you back to that illustrious age.
Through clever diplomacy, Dubrovnik managed to maintain its independence until the 1800s. Through all those centuries, the Republic of Dubrovnik invested mightily to withstand any siege. They stockpiled grain in huge underground silos and piped in water from nearby mountains.
Dubrovnik’s single best attraction is its mighty wall, offering an unforgettably scenic mile-long stroll. While constructed over many centuries, today’s impressive fortifications date from the 1400s, when they were beefed up to defend against the Ottoman Turks.
While the walls worked fine against the Turks five centuries ago, they couldn’t protect the city from modern artillery. In 1991, after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav army shelled the city, damaging about two-thirds of its buildings.
Brighter newer tiles mark the houses that were hit and roofs that had to be replaced. These roofs were rebuilt using the same materials as the original ones. When the war engulfed this beloved city, the world paid attention. Today, as the new tiles are fading, so are the scars of that war.
We’re staying at a small guesthouse at the top of town. Throughout Croatia, sobe — that’s rooms for rent in private homes — are a much better value than big hotels.
Ours is run by Pero.
Rick: Pero, tell me about the war here in Dubrovnik.
Pero: Well, it was a very difficult time. So, Dubrovnik was under siege for eight months…so no water, no electricity, no food, medicine…And all the refugees from all the smaller places around, they came to Dubrovnik, hoping they were not there to do such things to Dubrovnik.
Rick: What happened to this house, specifically?
Pero: Well, this house was hit by two grenades from mortars, right? So this is what I find in my, on top of my house. Two of those exploded. So the house was hit...no tiles — so I could see the sky. There was no roof on the house.
Rick: And this house...?
Pero: This house is more than six century old. And it’s in my family for more than 200 years. So, I took some loans from the bank, and I decided to rent it, like a guesthouse.
Rick: So now it’s the tourists have come back and you have a good business.
Rick: And a beautiful house. Congratu — the quality — the craftsmanship — is just beautiful here.
Pero: Thank you very much.
With the war in the past, the tourists are back. To escape the crowds, hit the beaches during the heat and crush of midday. Go for a dip near — or far — from the Old Town. Wherever you choose, you’ll swim in the shadow of one of Europe’s finest fortified medieval cities.
And evenings in town are peaceful. A hole in the mighty wall leads to a great little bar called Buža — just the place for a romantic sunset. Clinging like a barnacle to the outside of the city walls, this tranquil getaway is the perfect place to appreciate this city’s extraordinary setting.
From Dubrovnik, here in Croatia, two other countries that were once part of Yugoslavia are each just an hour’s drive away: Bosnia and Montenegro...and that’s where we’re heading next.
Montenegro, where towering mountains meet the Adriatic, is both scenic and humble. One of Europe’s newest and smallest countries, it’s about the size of Connecticut, with well under a million people. It’s a country of contrasts: an intriguing combination of rugged landscapes, communist-era decrepitude, and an emerging Mediterranean hotspot that’s quite popular with the cruising crowd.
Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor is an easy day trip from Dubrovnik. Its fjord-like cliffs rise out of the Adriatic, surrounding ancient towns packed with history...all tied together by a twisty road.
The narrow mouth of the bay — easy to defend, yet deep enough for big ships — defines an ideal and strategic natural harbor.
At the Venetian-flavored seafront town of Perast, locals ferry visitors out to a manmade island that comes with a fascinating story.
Five hundred years ago, local fishermen found an icon of the Virgin Mary stranded on a reef right here. They spent the next two centuries sinking old boats and dropping rocks every time they sailed by, eventually building the island and the church: Our Lady of the Rocks.
The church — with its legendary icon above its high altar — is festooned with symbols of thanks for answered prayers: countless votive plaques, bouquets and ribbons from happy brides married here, and paintings of ships engulfed in storms. These were commissioned by sailors who survived, thankful for Mary’s protection.
Tucked among a clutter of nautical artifacts is a delicate treasure. This embroidery was a labor of love created by a local woman. For 25 years she toiled, using the finest materials available: silk and her own hair. The cherubs show the years passing — as the hair of the angels, like the hair of the artist herself, went from dark to white. Humble and anonymous, she had faith that her work was worthwhile and would be appreciated — as it is, two centuries later, by a steady parade of travelers from distant lands.
The bay’s main town, also called Kotor, has been protected from centuries of would-be invaders by its imposing wall. Its fortifications begin as stout ramparts along the waterfront, then climb up and up to control the strategic high ground.
Kotor’s harbor is now a hit with recreational yachters. Its gate welcomes visitors into the Old Town and a main square busy with cafés. Its warren of tangled alleys and hidden squares seem custom-made for exploring.
From Kotor, a small road zigzags 25 times high above the sea, up through the clouds, and into the historic heartland of this country. The “old road” — little more than an overgrown donkey path — was once the mountain kingdom’s umbilical cord to the Adriatic. Cresting the ridge, we enter another world: an inhospitable land of rocks, scrub brush, and ramshackle farmhouses. The “black” mountains that define this basin gave this country its name: Monte Negro.
The landscape changes once again as we cross into yet another country: Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Bosnia for short.
Before we get into Bosnia, let’s review the big picture. Every place we’re visiting on this trip was part of Yugoslavia, which means literally the “land (or union) of the South Slavic peoples.” The country of Yugoslavia lasted roughly from the end of World War I until the 1990s.
While its ethnic make-up shaped its recent history, the differences between its groups can be subtle and confusing. That’s because the major “ethnicities” of Yugoslavia were all South Slavs — they have the same ancestors and speak closely related languages.
The defining difference is that they adopted different religions, brought here over the centuries by various emperors, missionaries, bishops, and sultans.
Catholic South Slavs are called “Croats,” Orthodox Christian South Slavs are called “Serbs,” and Muslim South Slavs are called “Bosniaks.” For the most part, there’s no way that a casual visitor can determine the religion or loyalties of the people just by looking at them.
So we can better understand this troubled union, I’m joined by my friend and co-author of my guidebook to this region, Cameron Hewitt.
Rick: It just seems like an unlikely union.
Cameron: Oh, it was extremely unlikely. You had all these different groups in this one territory. There’s only one person who was able to hold it together successfully. That was Marshal Tito, who ruled Yugoslavia. He respected all the diversity within the country, but he believed above all in Yugoslav unity. He said that the divisions between the different groups should be like the white lines in a marble column.
Rick: That marble column didn’t last very long.
Cameron: No, it didn’t last very long. After Tito died in 1980, this very delicate balance he created started to topple; different groups started to grab for more power and authority, and before long, the whole thing just fell apart.
Rick: Now, I’ve always just thought of it as a place with so much ethnic baggage — that it was just, without Tito, a bloody mess waiting to happen.
Cameron: That’s definitely one factor. There’s no question that this region has a long history of groups not getting along with each other, lots of warfare. On the other hand, that can’t be the only reason. There were long periods of peace in their history as well. In this case, you had politicians who were taking advantage of those feelings, manipulating those feelings…It was a combination of those two factors that caused Yugoslavia to fall apart in such a violent way.
Rick: It was a horrible war.
Cameron: It was a horrific war. I mean, as each group tried to grab for more of what they thought was “their” territory, this is the conflict that introduced the term “ethnic cleansing” into our vocabulary.
And much of the worst happened here, in Bosnia. That’s because this was Yugoslavia’s crossroads of cultures. Looking at the architecture, you can see this is where its three major ethnicities — Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks — all came together. In the 1990s, Bosnia was ripped apart by a three-way war between these groups.
Cameron: So, after a few bloody years of fighting, all the different factions across Yugoslavia finally laid down their arms and agreed to peace accords in 1995. Here in Bosnia, they had to actually create a semi-autonomous Serb state within the larger state of Bosnia to preserve that balance.
Trebinje, nestled along a river in a fertile valley, is a showcase town of the semi-autonomous Serb state called “Republika Srpska.” Exploring it, Cameron and I see a hardworking community offering the foreigner a warm — if curious — welcome.
At first, Trebinje felt a bit inaccessible — quite different from my hometown. Yet the more I observed, the more it seemed essentially the same. Teens enjoy prom photos posted in the photography studio’s window. Parents give driving lessons in the park. And little girls love a visit to the snack shack. As always, travel humanizes a distant land.
A grand Orthodox church caps a hill high above Trebinje. Its interior is rich with symbolism. While newly painted, the medieval feel of the church is a reminder that the Eastern Orthodox faith steadfastly carries on the earliest traditions of Christianity in a modern world. Father Dražen takes a few moments to clue me in.
Rick: When I come to this church as a western Christian, it feels very eastern. Why is that?
Father Dražen: Well, because it is an eastern church. And here, Eastern Orthodoxy is the biggest Christian community.
Rick: What makes you a Serb?
Father Dražen: Well, first, Serb’s our nation. So, that’s something that has to do with our genes, with our families, with our background. But as Christians, we would say our Christian Orthodox faith is also something that makes us Serbs. And, as a believer and as a priest, I would say that the real Serb is an Orthodox Christian Serb.
Rick: So the Serbian Republic here in Bosnia-Herzegovina is Serbian Orthodox.
Father Dražen: The majority of population belongs to our Serbian Orthodox Church.
Rick: In America, we have a word “balkanization”; it means everybody’s fighting, and just nobody gets along, and that’s this area here. Why is that?
Father Dražen: Obviously there was a problem. And balkanization, as you mentioned, is something that has to be slowly overcome. And we, as a church, I think we have a specific role in reconciliation.
Rick: One last question: What’s this ostrich egg?
Father Dražen: Well, it brings life. So in Orthodox tradition, it symbolizes resurrection.
Rick: There you go.
Exploring the countryside, we find more reminders of the natural beauty and the humanity of this obscure corner of Europe.
Heading west, we approach the ethnic boundary — Europe’s cultural fault line. We’re leaving the Serbian Republic and entering the half of Bosnia shared by Muslims and Croats. Patriotic symbols remind those driving where loyalties lie. Illustrating the cultural divide, the Serbs’ Cyrillic alphabet gives way to more familiar letters. And a mountaintop castle guarding the pass suggests that this has long been a point where different cultures merge.
Mostar, straddling its beloved river, is the leading city of the southern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mostar feels Turkish because, until the early 20th century, it belonged to the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottomans vacated, they left behind a large population of Muslim converts.
You feel this Turkish heritage everywhere. It’s embodied in a skyline of minarets and in the five-times-daily call to prayer. And Mostar’s 400-year-old stone bridge was commissioned by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent.
With its elegant, single pointed arch, the Old Bridge symbolized the town’s status as the place where East meets West in Europe. When it was part of Yugoslavia, as in centuries past, Mostar was a place where cultures mingled — where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks lived together in relative harmony.
But then, as Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s, Mostar itself became embroiled in war. Neighbors and friends took up arms against each other. First, Croats and Bosniaks forced out the Serbs. Then the two remaining groups set their guns on each other — establishing a bloody front line that cut right through the center of this town.
Locals, like tour guide Alma Elezović, lived under siege during that frightening time.
Rick: You must have powerful memories of living during the war — living through the war.
Alma: Yes. You know, we are Muslim, and that was our flat here — we lived here all the time when war start. So, when war start, they cut electricity, cut everything…so it was totally dark! It was like we back — 500 years back. And during the shelling, they sent us a million grenades and bullets — we have to stop, we have to find a shelter to protect us and our families. But evenings bring new duties: You have to find water, you have to find food, see the friends, et cetera. So, I remember I had to wear black things because of snipers watch us all the time, 24 hours.
Rick: So there were Croat snipers over here shooting this way?
Alma: Exactly. Exactly.
Rick: Was your family OK?
Alma: Yes. Thank God, my family was OK, but many of my friends have been killed here. And two friends actually died here...just here. This street is very symbolic to us. We live on this street and die on this street.
Alma: This is a very special place for us. It was a park, before war, where lovers gather, children gather, and sitting here have a nice time. But in the war, we mustn’t go to the cemetery because it was exposed too much to the snipers. We had to come here and bury people — actually we have to, transform park into a cemetery.
Rick: And all of the dates...1993.
Alma: Yes. I think 90 percent of these graves are from ’93. Very young people.
The conflict reached its peak with a symbolic moment that resonated around the world. This venerable bridge was pummeled by artillery shells from the hilltop above, until — finally — it collapsed into the river.
While the city has been at peace now since 1995, the sectarian symbolism remains powerful. Still, both religious communities seem determined to build upon this fragile reconciliation.
The 10 minarets, rebuilt since the war, once again pierce Mostar’s skyline like Muslim exclamation points. Each Friday, the town’s mosques are busy with worshippers. Across town, twice as high as the tallest minaret, towers the Croats’ Catholic church spire. Like the mosques, this new church is busy serving the faithful in its community. Observing this, it occurred to me that I’ve never met anyone — from either community here — who called the war anything but a tragic mistake.
Mostar is rebuilding — it’s moving on, and those ethnic divisions are gradually fading. Soon after the war, the Old Bridge was rebuilt using the original materials. The new Old Bridge was immediately embraced as a promising sign of reconciliation.
And today, as they have for generations, young Mostarians jump from the bridge. Divers make a ruckus collecting donations at the top of the bridge. They tease and they tease, asking for more money...and more money...and more money. Finally, they take the 75-foot plunge.
Leading up the hill from the Old Bridge is Coppersmiths’ Street — a lively shopping zone with the flavor of a Turkish bazaar: you’ll find hammered-copper decorations, artists’ galleries, and a local twist: old Yugoslav Army kitsch.
And in the evening, restaurants along Coppersmiths’ Street and the rest of Mostar’s riverfront clamor for your business. Grilled meats are big here — including shish kebabs and the little sausage links called ćevapčići. And everything tastes better with a dab of ajvar — that’s a condiment made of eggplant and red pepper...like Bosnian ketchup with a kick.
An after-dinner stroll inspires confidence in this region’s ability to heal its wounds. Young and old, everyone’s out embracing life. Masala Square — literally “Place of Prayer” — is designed for big gatherings. And tonight, the students are out...and Bosnian hormones are raging. Being young and sexy is a great equalizer. These 20-something Bosnians were toddlers during the war. Seeing them tonight, it’s clear: They’re looking forward to a bright and promising future.
While travel in the Balkans has its challenges, it’s also deeply rewarding. The history is complex and the problems are many. But solutions are emerging. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Till next time, keep on travelin’.
Local fishermen found an icon of the Virgin Mary stranded on a reef [laugh] believe it or not, whoa, it’s so cool.
Nothing looks right without some wildflowers held by Cameron Hewitt. Let’s hear it for our flower grip [laugh].