Dave the motorhome is parked near a man made lake in Strmac, Croatia (N45.34696 E17.38284).
Our Bosnian adventure is over. We left confused. The invisible internal borders, missing ethnic abrasion, war damage contrasted with shiny new builds, churches alongside mosques, widespread use of a non-native foreign currency, Roman versus Cyrillic text, we left more mystified than when we entered. One thing was certain, those we met were universally helpful. Sometimes to the point I mistrusted them, to my detriment. From a motorhome perspective, the road surface is good, tight (elbows in) single carriageway abounds, minute by minute concentration is needed. Campsites are less frequent than Morocco, we passed one in 2 hours of driving today, new sites are appearing as capitalism flowers, awaiting punters. Free camping appears possible for the brave.
Last night we walked as far as our nerves allowed on the lorry loaded road. Pavements and streetlights didn’t exist. The village opposite the rough field we camped in had erected a bridge to cross the river. With the original wooden planks rotting, a second set had been hastily nailed along the centre at right angles to the ones acting as man traps. These too had turned to dust in places, Ju wisely declined the challenge. Apart from a brief glimpse of a figure wandering the small fields, a clutch of ant-sized coloured shirts high on a mountain pasture, and a welly-wearing fly fisherman splashing along this morning, we had no contact with the village. We passed it on our way out, a whisp of smoke rising from a single chimney.
The E661 is being resurfaced. The lengthy stretch yesterday often flipped between rough (old) and smooth (no new tarmac yet, just scraping the surface rendered it smoother). Police with matt black speed guns, or just spindly sticks carrying a round ‘stop’ request, stood ominously at intervals. Our foreign-registered wagon was studiously ignored. Today we cruised the new stuff, two inches of tarmac easing us along. The countryside is uniformly green, an expanse of trees covering rocky hills. Together with the rough-hewn nature of the houses it feels a new country, a land of opportunity, but a skint one. Most cars are elderly, asthmatic, dusty things. Occasionally, brand new Audis and BMW 4WD jobbies overtake us on blind bends, we’ve no idea where the money came from, or whether they were ‘liberated’ from German garages and car parks.
Jajce announces itself with a waterfall. Determined to avoid paying for parking, we follow the locals into the bus station, through a gap in the cars and pop out with a free spot, overlooking the falls. There’s no shade and Dave’s an instant sweat machine, but we take it, gawp at the town centre falls and walk to town.
Throughout our short time in Bosnia, our eyes have been drawn to the damage, bullet splatters in particular. It’s not hard to imagine someone pointing a machine gun at a house and splurting out rounds. It is hard, impossible, to imagine why, or what the civilian inhabitants of the homes felt. Jajce, shows its scars within minutes, we stare as we pass, but also look to the sweeter side. The town has ancient walls, a high fortress which aimed to see off the invading Turks, but instead was gifted to them without a fight. A small underground church and crypt serves best to cool us off. Entry fees come to 1 Convertible Mark each (43p), Charlie goes free. Within the citadel, our unleashed pooch makes trouble, cornering a group of scarf wearing Muslim ladies. Panting heavily, he couldn’t figure our why none of them would stroke him. Later, as we leave, another Muslim, a young woman, calls to us in English. She asks how we are liking Bosnia. We say it’s beautiful, which it is. We don’t tell her the country is an enigma. As we haltingly talk (German is far more widely spoken than English due to Bosnians working there), her mother smiles at Charlie, and her previously herded friends arrive to listen. A feign by the mutt has them flinching backwards. They’re beautiful, friendly people, many of them were murdered a few years back, we’re more confused.
A discarded newspaper intrigues as we sip iced orange drinks. Two smashed cars, bodies covered at the roadside, don’t surprise us, overtaking manoeuvres here are often desperate affairs, the Italians would fear these roads at times. The same Italians would be distraught by the sports section, more pages are dedicated to obituaries, the morose faces sometimes printed 6 or 7 times as the whole family pays its respects.
Driving north, the walls close in. Near Banja Luka, the smooth fat river we’ve shadowed for miles goes all frenetic. Tumbling wooden viewing platforms and signs for the 2009 World Rafting Championship, we’re a few years late. With this exception, we see few things to draw the tourist and keep moving into Republica Sprska, the Serb area where our Roman alphabet even fails us, Russian Cyrillic road signs the epitome of foreign. With this change of alphabet, the hills bow down to the plain, combine harvesters shave the fields. One nearly shaves us as we crawl past it on the road. Nothing attracts us, the are no campsites, the towns are strings of houses and gaudy businesses stretched one deep along the road. Finally, a 1km to the Douane (customs) sign and we have to decide, one more night in Bosnia or head to Croatia. As our insurance runs out at 10am tomorrow, and we woke at 10am today, laziness decided for us. The crossing was simple, although I did find myself reversing from various lanes to enter Croatia, red lights persuading me into the lorry lane at first.
Naively expecting war damage to end with the border, we are set right. Every 3rd or 4th house has pock mark bullet wounds. They look forlorn, even those re-rendered usually lack paint, old scars still glaring at us as we pass by in the sunlight.
With nowhere to stay (Croatia’s campsites all cling to the Adriatic), a policeman appears walking on the opposute side of the road. Dave pulls over and I jump out and into the station. It reminds me of my primary school, since pulled down. Walls thick with hard paint, rounded radiators, plain and simple. Two officers look surprised I got in. A third, 20 something man is summoned jovially to speak English. He is almost deferential, writing the word Strmac on our map. No one takes note of a wedding convoy, horns blaring and a chap poked out of a sunroof waving a heavy Croatian flag.
Not knowing what we’d find, we drove the narrow forest track here. It ended with a glut of Croatian cars. We walked the place, laughing voices calming nerves. We find a concrete and wood recreation area, something which outlived Tito we guess. It’s ugly, much of it abandoned, filthy and derelict. The locals clearly see past this. A tractor pulling a trailer brim full of teenagers whoops past, arms waving. We’re aliens here, but no one seems to mind. Nervous? Yep, two cars just reversed behind us, blocking us in, unfathomable conversation follows. We sit quietly, Charlie snores.