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Ten hours. Six Border Crossings.

That’s Europe for you. We went 85 miles from Dubrovik to Mostar and crossed the Croatia and Bosnia borders three times in each direction. Passports out. Passports in. Six stamps in ten hours. Our tour guide, Ivan, was wonderful. He started the day with a history lesson. The name Yugoslavia was derived from "Yugo" meaning south and “Slav” for the people of the area. This is in contrast to the northern Slavic states of Poland and Russia. The Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims have lived on the Dalmatian coast for centuries.

The Republic of Dubrovnik stood as an independent state from 1358 to 1808. A group of 17 aristocratic families took turns at governing the Republic, trading with neighboring and distant countries. At their peak they had over 200 ships. In 1667, half of Dubrovnik’s population was wiped out by an earthquake. During the reconstruction, the Republic traded salt extracted from the Adriatic Sea. For pre-refrigeration trading, salt was as valuable as gold.

When the Ottomans came knocking on their door, the Republic was very smart. Instead of fighting, they paid off the Ottomans to be left alone. When the Venetians became a threat, the Republic offered a sliver of land on the Dalmatian Coast to the Ottomans in return for protection. When the French and Venetians sought assistance from the Republic against the Ottomans, the Republic sent their trading ships without the flags so as not to upset the Ottomans. The Croatians were history's master negotiators until Napoleon arrived in 1808. By then they were in a state of decline and could hardly resist Napoleon's assault. The Republic fell and history took a different course through two World Wars and then the civil war that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

From Dubrovnik, we drove on the Dalmatian coast with panoramic views of the Croatian islands. We crossed Slana and Ston in Croatia, Neum in Bosnia. Then Metković in Croatia. And finally Počitelj (Po-jee-tel) and Mostar in Bosnia. We saw oyster farms and an 80km peninsula where the Chinese are building a bridge to connect it to the mainland. And we saw some of the 1,200 Croatian islands resting peacefully in the Adriatic Sea.

After going in a northwesterly direction, we veered north into a rugged terrain of brown mountains. Deep valleys at the base of the Dinarides are home to rosemary bushes as far as the eye can see, interspersed with olive trees and vast stretches of mandarin orange farms. At an overlook, Ivan showed us large swaths covered by vineyards. In the deep recesses of the mountains, we saw signs for "Rooms", reenforcing the hold that tourism has on this area.

About two hours into our trip, we crossed into Bosnia-Herzegovina for the final time. The difference in the economic conditions was immediately visible. Bosnia is more rustic, with many remnants of the civil war of the 90s. Our first stop - Počitelj - contains the ruins of a fort from 15th century with a still-functioning mosque. The climb up to the fort's tower was exhausting and exhilarating. The slippery and uneven limestone steps gave way to spectacular views of the surrounding area.

The locals started building this fort to stave off the Ottomans. Instead, the Ottomans took over the area and then completed the fort! At the top of the watch tower, we took turns to sit in the windows taking in the views and feeling blessed for the chance to experience the history of the region as a family.

As I looked back before descending, I saw the warm winter sun streaming through the windows in the watch tower and imagined the panic the locals must have felt as the Ottomans scaled the steep hills to capture them. With parched throats, creaking knees and feet on fire we were happy to get back to the car with our minds filled with a lifetime of memories, safe in the temporal distance between the invaders and us.

Our journey into the history of this area continued with a visit to Mostar. More about that in the next post. In the meantime, happy tidings for the new year!!

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