LONG READ: The quiet, stilly green trail ribbons down the valley among the spring fresh hazelnut and birch trees in front of us. Four poxies in the saddles of wheeled horses. Poxy lucky to be free and easy on holiday escaping the grip of interesting times. Heavy legged after the winding climb from the narrow fjord beside Gruz, Dubrovnik through Brgat and the border control at Ivanica we have flat quiet roads ahead of us now.
Simon and Stephen, two Dubliners and James and Charlie from Boyle, all transplanted into another time and place. For, to cycle into Bosnia-Hercegovina is to feel disjointed in time. In the now, awake, absorbing and processing stimuli from all of the senses simultaneously. The now, however is striated with the past. Long dead empires and their replacements live on through their legacies. Wanted or unwanted, nobody knows and so it goes.
The Ćiro is a trail along the route of a narrow gauge rail line constructed during the relatively brief time of the Austrian-Hungarian empire here, following the retreat of the Ottoman.
Gently winding past former stations with trees growing from their cut stone walls. The not so recent dark past announces itself with spidery graffiti and signs warning of the danger of landmines off the trail.
This part of the trail runs along a ledge cut into the side of the mountain ten to twenty meters above the valley floor which stretches out to the east. A green carpet tufted with clumps of young trees to the mountain on the other side that rises in a stracciatella of grey limestone and green shrubs. We hear the bells of goats annotating the wild birdsong as they wander from polje to polje. Occasionally we pass through clefts in the mountain which were hewn for the railway. At other times the sides of the trail drop down in steep carved stone flanks with no guardrails making us focus on staying close to the grassy middle of the road.
We receive warm greetings from elderly householders tending tidy crops of potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes and strawberries.
As the daylight begins to wane we round a gentle curving bend passing Vjetarnica cave which opens to our left breathing welcome cool air from the belly of the mountain across sweaty heads. The cave stretches some 6km under the mountain. About 800 metres of the cave is accessible to the public with a guide. The temperature inside remains at a constant 12 degrees celsius year-round.
At Zavala, the station has been meticulously renovated into a restaurant and guesthouse by the owner Theo Andrić (no relation to Ivo, Nobel prize-winning author of The Bridge on the Drina). The welcome we receive outstrips any Céad Míle Fáilte one might expect in a similar establishment back home. The house offers a nip of traditional Travarica made with herbs from the area is said to help recovery and prevent many ailments. Dark green, dry and slightly bitter. We are the only guests and get cleaned up while dinner is prepared. After dinner, we have some light entertainment provided by the owner and one of the waiters.
Jack Nicholson once visited the establishment not long after it first opened.
Our next day starts very early with the arrival of a busload of pilgrims to the nearby Serbian orthodox Monastery which is dedicated to the worship of the Most Holy Mother of God. Their excited chatter in anticipation of their visit to the holy site, rising through the rafters wakes us for breakfast.
The trail continues down the valley much as before albeit with more signs of active cultivation of the land. We come to a dark tunnel through a mountain spur. It is dark and foreboding with the entrance quite overgrown. It is also full of bats and a good layer of guano coats the floor. We opt to slog up the hill to take the long way around on a road empty but for the pilgrim’s bus which tootles as it passes, giving us some encouragement. The mountain bikes we hired were the wrong choice so far. Heavy, cumbersome with tires wide resisting progress. The surfaces have not justified our over-engineered steeds yet.
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In the crook of the valley before the tunnel stands a group of gutted houses, uncrowned molars impacted by war or decay, nobody knows and so it goes. The unseen border between Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina fades to the east. Graffiti changes too with fewer Serbian chetnik symbols and road signs with the Cyrillic part sprayed out. At Ravno we pause at another perfectly renovated station for coffee and recovery. Our target of Mostar seems to be overly ambitious already but nobody is willing to accept this yet. James discretely researches a backup plan.
Loaded with a resupply of water we carry on. Harmless grass snakes slither away from their asphalt sunbeds as soon as they sense our arrival. At Hutovo we scout around for a cafe to refuel and rehydrate. We find one set into a derelict factory.
The door is locked but there is a TV on inside advertising cool, clear mineral water. We are more dehydrated than we thought. The day is warm and the thick tires take their toll. We ask a young fellow of about 10 years if he knows where the owner is. He checks and returns to say she is away but we should follow him. He brings us up a short gravel driveway to a house with a shaded terrace where his mother and grandmother bid us to cast aside our bikes and join them and their little bunch of children. They gave us ice-cold rainwater drawn from their underground cistern as well as coffee and biscuits.
James announces that there is a train from Capljina to Mostar at 16:42. All opt to go for it without further discussion.
“We have about two hours to cover 28km so, easily doable but we better not hang around or it might start to get like the 3:10 to Yuma”.
We bid our farewells and some small pocket money is distributed to the kids over the protests of our hosts. Just outside the village, we encounter a stretch of boulders which can loosely be described as road works. Not even our tank bikes can handle the surface so we walk. Thankfully it is soon behind us but time is slipping. A shortcut takes us up over a steep and high mountain which eats even more time. Lips quiver and sweat drips on handlebars as we push on, up over crests and round corners to reveal yet another, disheartening crest. No time to admire the views of distant Capljina and our train.
We are rewarded with a curling descent that takes us to the flat road alongside Svitavsko lake, part of the Hutovo natural park. As we race through the settlements leading to Capljina, fatigue is forgotten, corners are cut and roundabouts are excised to save a few metres of distance. At the station, James lines up for the tickets while the lads charge to get the bikes on the train. The train conductor runs in from the platform to the ticket counter swearing loudly in Serbo-Croat about the bikes, his black leather satchel swinging around his thick midriff.
#The ticket seller looks out over half-rimmed spectacles and dismisses him with a curt phrase that crackles over the intercom. The tickets are manufactured in an intricate process. The ticket building involves three bits of paper, two of which are written on by hand and stamped individually and the third is generated by a printer but only after one of the first bits of paper is passed through some sort of scanner. A whistle sounds on the platform. The train is leaving in less than a minute, carriage doors slam shut. Two people behind James in the line become agitated and press up to the intercom to urge on the ticket man. James apologises as he takes the handful of confetti from the drawer at the ticket desk.
The strangers say very kindly “it’s ok, it’s ok” before turning to the intercom with a stream of aggressive verbs and nouns issued with such conviction that they almost smell bad.
Shouts from Charlie prevent the conductor from closing the door as James dawdles out to the platform, winning time for the two strangers in the queue. The train driver is leaning out shouting at the conductor who is now distracted from the door and waddles up the length of three carriages to better hear the driver. The strangers and James bundle onto the train, the conductor lets loose another lot of loaded words, wobbles back and bangs the door closed.
Finally, the train sets off for Mostar. Thus we have time to contemplate the Neretva river as we run along its right bank upriver. The first time one sees the Neretva is to realise that you never could have believed that any river could have such a profoundly natural turquoise colour and still be healthy. Natural and healthy it is as attested by the occasional swimmers we spot along the way.
Sleepy Simon met a pie-man in his little dream, said sleepy Simon to the pie-man imagine where I’ve been.
At Mostar, we carefully unload the bikes through a throng of people scrummaging to get on the train for the ride to Sarajevo.
After finding our accommadation on the west side of the river but in that part of the town which is still considered east Mostar we went in search of dinner in the old town. The river bisects the town but the political lines do not follow such a natural division and are rather confusing. There are still political tensions in the town but somehow its seems to function. Indeed there are no peace walls here like in Belfast for example.
At dinner we are reminded of how culturally different Mostar is when we hear the Muezzin’s call to prayer bringing an ancient eery and at the same time charming atmosphere to our feast.
After dinner, we spend some time on the courtyard terrace of our hosts. Safely ensconced in the quiet protected by walls on three sides with a beautiful view of the river 40 meters below us in the canyon. Our host Adnan joins us for a chat. He was a radio journalist during the war in the early 90s. We did not really discuss that period but rather cast our minds back to more ancient times in what in the rest of Europe were referred to as the Dark Ages or early Medieval. Before the schism in the Christian church between Rome and what was then Constantinople.
During that time there was a movement of Gnosticism or spiritual freedom which was represented by the Bogomils who came to Bosnia-Hercegovina and other regions in the Balkans. They had their own Glagolithic script and transcribed the Bible to local languages so that the common people could understand it. They were suceeded by or related to the Cathars of France. Both movements were cruelly stamped out at the behest of Rome and the Christian church for daring to be different.
Around about the same time, and notably, before the rise of the Ottoman empire which reinforced Islam in its lands in its own ways, there were the Dervishes. Muslim holy men under a vow of poverty who travelled seeking alms, not for themselves but for other poor people with whom they were bound to share. Thus they sought to spread the word of their own method of belief in god.
Our last day of cycling begins with an easy 12km jaunt to Blagaj and the home of the dervish. We leave the city on a busy straight road out past a stretch of USA style retail outlets, motels and even a MacDonalds. Soon all of that is behind us and the road splits to leave us on much quieter stretches into and the town of Blagaj.
We pause as Charlie takes some time to photograph the local flags which are mostly green and feature a crescent moon. Potentially material for a new GAA club in Ballaghdereen to bring Balla players back into the fold of mother Roscommon, nobody knows and so it goes. We freewheel down into the valley of the Buna which flows out, fully formed from under the mountainside, turquoise and glorious on its way to join the Neretva to the sea. We take brunch down by the waterside which cleverly diverts some of the cool water along each side of the terrace and indeed above the terrace from where it is intermittently allowed to cascade in a beaded curtain cooling the air all around us.
After brunch, the mood is high as we cross the Buna and follow it down towards the Neretva to rejoin the Ćiro. High because we a heading low, technically downhill. That is, until the road runs out and there is no obvious way across a small tributary of the Buna. We are at a sort of green peninsula between the two rivers. In the grassy fields between the trees there is a kickabout here and a game of volleyball there and in the shade, families are setting up picnics and barbecues while teenage boys dare each other to find ever more imaginative ways to jump in the river from the raised banks, screaming after every plunge into the icy cold waters.
After a time, our eyes are opened when we notice a group of young ladies remove their shoes and gingerly ford the river at a shallow part. We easily follow across the smooth pebbles of the river bed with our bikes.
The Buna brings us to the town of Buna at the Neretva and Buna bridge where we stall for a while in the shade at snug little Konoba by the river, not wanting to hurry in the heat but rather relax and enjoy the shade and watch for the zippy shadows of small trout in the shallows under the bridge. We
Eventually, we do get moving to protest and complaints. We cross the Neretva just a bit down from the town of Buna, where we find ourselves on the Ćiro once more. This takes us into the narrowing gorge of the Neretva just where it is being bridged by Chinese construction companies for a motorway on stilts coming from the coast, close to Medjugorje which is a mere 8km away as the crow flies.
We have no time to go there today but continue to our final lodgings at the far side of Capljina which is on yet another idyllic tributary to the Neretva, the Trebizhat. There our host joins us for chats late into the evening and brought us plenty of food, unbidden. As we eat we listen, first the swifts dash after insects in the fading light and, later bats at the same act, while further away we hear a pair of what the locals call a “chook” but which we learn is a Scops Owl
At this time of the year, the Scops calls its mates over and back for the first hours of the night and it can be quite hypnotising, especially when there are no manmade noises to compete with.
In the morning we are brought through a time warp, also called a man with a van, to avoid the same trail we came upon and also to make it in time for a ferry to our next destination, a beautiful Island just off Dubrovnik.
Two flights most days from Dublin to Dubrovnik with Aer Lingus and Ryanair
Check the weather before you go – it can get quite hot in July/August. Other months can be warm in the day but occasionally chilly at night.
Bikes can be hired from bikingcroatia.com from around 20 euros per day, depending on the number and length of time.
Crossing the border in Bosnia you will need to show your passport (passport card was accepted without discussion from some of our party) and currently also show proof of vaccination (this was not closely scrutinised).
Train Capljina to Mostar costs 2.70 euros per person plus 3.50 euros per bike.
At Blagaj you can see most of the sites free of charge. The house of the dervish costs a very reasonable 5 euros: tekijablagaj.ba/en.
Accommodation runs to about 20 euros per night per person sharing at all the places we stayed.
We stayed at:
- Guest house City Star, Mostar
- Restaurant and Canoe center Hercegovac
- Message or call directly for a better deal than on the usual platforms.
If you need a transfer of bikes and people you can usually find someone local with a van who will do it. About 40 euros per person plus bike from Capljina for a party of 4 to Dubrovnik.
Article by James Candon. May 24, 2022