Medugorje to Neum with a Folding Bike

Twilight Dive, midsummer, Neum, Bosnia  David Bugeja (c) 2018

I did not want to stay in Neum. Out of the question, out of my mind that I’d even consider stopping over for even a single night in this tacky tourist enclave. Certainly not in midsummer with all the hotels packed tight and the ceaseless procession of luxury coaches forever emptying their motley cargo onto the streets. How many people could possibly fit into Neum?

But I had no choice. Crazy to bite the bullet, persist, and go on cycling past noon in the humid forty centigrade heat. I’d seriously be risking my health. My last summer ever with a bike through the Balkans. My third summer in a row after recovering from the malignant melanoma lesion on my left shin.

Sixty kilometres on the road:

Cycling out of Medugorje at 6 am and one hell of a stiff, hot ride to the Bosnian / Croatian border and muddling my way through the two kilometre traffic tailback at the Metkovic checkpoint and the brute pedal work – never stop climbing – along the spectacular but hideously hilly Jadranska Magistrala followed by yet further Croatian / Bosnian border formalities after Klek (but at least these were brisk) and I was about all in and far too knackered to move on forward.

I could go no further. Not even if I tried.  Broce,  the only  coastal village offering sanely priced accommodation was still almost forty kilometres south in the direction of Dubrovnik so that would have meant another three or four hours of slogging it out in the sweltering inferno,  harassed all of the time by peak ultraviolet index levels. A definite no no after skin cancer.

I’d have to stay two nights, not one. No way could I even consider departing the next day on the feast of Santa Maria when all of Neum, and most of the catering and accommodation options all along the Croatian Adriatic coast,  would be shut down for this national summer holiday and most deeply revered Catholic feast day.

I needed to find a decent budget place fast. Shore up for a while and recover from the heat and hills. As far away from the maddening chatter and clutter of the crowds packing the public sandy beaches and the plush palm decorated lidos of hundred (plus) Euro a night three / four star hotel complexes. But still close enough to the beach promenades and the Konzum supermarket on the E65/M2 thoroughfare running through town.

The family run Hotel Villa Lav on Dubrovacka street in the residential part of central Neum was my best budget priced bet and the only short notice possibility that I  ran across on the street with an immediately available room on hand. Mid-twenties Aldin was my host. Friendly, laid back and informal, he made me feel welcome from the start. He had no issue at all with me taking the bike into my room, something I always insist on when choosing a place to stay the night.  A ground floor double room – discounted for single guest occupancy – with an ample window view of the hotel’s street parking lot would be my base for the next two days. Enough time to rest from the heat, shrug off the dust and grit of the road and explore Neum at leisure. Take pictures, rest well, stock up on groceries and, very dear to my heart, participate in Holy Mass service that evening and the day after on August 15, the feast of Santa Maria.

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Church by the sea – The always closed Crkva Svetog Ivana.  The Parish church of  Neum, where I participated in Holy Mass – Crkva Gospe od Zdravlja,  dedicated to Our Lady of Health – is a twenty minute brisk walk  further inland,  across the E65 and up the hill in the direction of the landmark autocamp MIR. David Bugeja (c) 2018

The weather changed fast. Within barely an hour of settling in the sky clouded over and a vicious north westerly gale force wind gusted the drying rack with my pegged freshly hand washed clothes right out to the edge of the kerb. I rushed out onto the street and was soaked by a sudden cloudburst as I grasped the rack and held on tight just in time to rescue my clothes from being whisked into the road and run over by the incessant carcade of honking BMW and Mercedes SUVs plying and jamming the streets of Neum.

Oh no, I never quite got away from those prowling macho dudes showing off their material wealth to any idiot awarding them with any more than the slightest second glance.

Clear that I’d have to wait till evening service at Our Lady’s Church to savour some of that same peace and tranquillity I had grew so accustomed to during my previous ten days in Medugorje.

So many times in  my two day stay at Neum when I could not help contrasting these two places and the people who frequented them: the calm and serenity and spiritual depth of chanting pilgrims going barefoot up Krucevac and the Apparition Hill  at the Madonna’s village versus the brash and rowdy skimpily clad young men and women thronging the streets and beaches of Neum.

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Neum’s hotels and beaches are a prime destination for local and foreign tourists on a budget. People shying away from the significantly more expensive village and town resorts peppering the Dubrovnik Riviera and further north all along the Adriatic Croatian coastline come here for the cheaper seaside hotels and long let summer apartments, restaurants and pharmacies. Everything is cheaper than Croatia in Neum!  David Bugeja (c) 2018        

I wasn’t here for the beaches or the sun or the swimming.  This was my annual solo pilgrimage to Medugorje – travelling alone for nine weeks with a bike across Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata, southern Bosnia and the Croatian Adriatic coast south of Metkovic. By mid-September I’d be back again in Malta bracing myself for the rigorous challenge of yet another secondary school scholastic year.  I sorely needed these solo summer peregrinations to reframe my thoughts and reflect about where I was in my life – what I wanted to achieve, where I wished to arrive. Medugorje had (and will always have) a very special place in my heart. Each time I was there (and God willing each time I’ll be there in future) I felt that I had changed in my mind, each time becoming a better person, summer after summer after summer. No limit to how much better I could become if I kept on keeping the faith and investing the effort to visit and revisit, bike or no bike.

Neum was just a stopover town where I’d been forced to stay much against my will, well knowing up ahead that I’d be completely out of my element in such a place as this. For God sake, why would anyone come here if not for the beaches and flirting and discos and bars and restaurants? If not for lazing away weeks at a stretch in one of the thousands of pigeon hole apartments littering the entire twenty kilometre section of Bosnian coastline in and around Neum?

Yet I soon discovered how mistaken I had been all along by indulging in such a prejudiced, slanted view. Place does not frame the spiritual. It is I myself, the person,  who determines how spiritual any place I happen to be can feel to me. I wouldn’t be swimming. Fine, if swimming wasn’t my thing. But I carried a pocket sized camera along with me to the beaches each time I trekked down the hill past Crkva Svetog Ivana carefully watching my step as I hiked down the litter strewn footpaths flanked either side by waist high weeds,  punctuated here and there with gutted stone dwellings oozing filth, garbage and the stench of urine.

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Abandoned dwellings are a common sight in Neum. David Bugeja (c) 2018

But no matter Neum’s circumstances – be it the garish and gaudy beach resort life or the abandonment of public areas gone to seed – I still felt that I could experience and learn much during my short stay if only I gave myself the chance to do so. Taking pictures calmed me down and made me feel that just by observing what was going on all around me I could discover and immortalise those special moments in time that were there for only me to discover. I could then pass them on to anyone caring to share them.

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Twilight Dive – Right before it happened.  I took this picture (and all of the pictures in this post) with my tiny Fuji X100s, my trusty and long time travel companion.  I was standing barely five metres away on the footpath right next to the plinth outcrop from where these young men were diving. No one ever noticed, no one would have cared. I waited for the light and the diver and the right moment to come together and pressed the shutter button twice – this picture and the featured picture at the top of the post. David Bugeja (c) 2018

The camera helped me to get back to a calmer, more composed state of mind. Not quite the calm and composure that I had experienced during my stay in Medugorje but not so far off neither. I felt that I was on the way to begin enjoying and appreciating Neum in my own manner. But something was still missing. I knew this. I also knew where I’d find it and so I asked Aldin where evening Holy Mass service would be held that day. The church by the sea seemed to be closed all of the time so was there any other option besides that? I was just about to leave the hotel to buy some groceries from the Konzum supermarket half a kilometre down the road when I ran into him in the hotel lobby and asked him about this.  He didn’t know but the neighbouring old lady hanging up her washing in the common area between the hotel and the next door house certainly knew! At 7 pm there’d be Holy Mass at the Parish Church dedicated to Our Lady of Health and if I turned up fifteen minutes or so before there’d also be time for confession. The church was just one kilometre away, two hundred metres further on from autocamp Mir, so I couldn’t possibly miss it she said.

I was there at 6.30 pm sharp. I sure did want to confess if only I could find a priest who spoke English or Italian (not an easy catch in Bosnia and Croatia, especially the further away you travel from Medugorje). But I got lucky!

I met thirty year old Father Anthony in the sacristy at the back of the church and yes he spoke fluent English. I needed to share my thoughts and feel better guided as how to best relate with others, particularly those people I found to be most challenging to live and work with on a daily basis. I spoke about this with him, showed him my discomfort in my relationship with these people I found to be difficult and who willy nilly I had to keep on meeting regularly at least for now.  He took his time to reply, then said that it just wasn’t possible that I could be everyone’s friend, not even if I worked with these people. Relationships change all of the time, some friendships endure forever but other friendships, those less deeply rooted, are sometimes cast aside. That’s normal and there’s nothing wrong in that he said. No person can be a friend of all of the people he happens to know. But this should not stop me from acting civil and being kind and helpful to anyone around me, even to people who are not my friends. No harm in saying good morning or how are you or offering help to those whom I may not consider as friends. Today they may not be my friends, but if only I did my best to show my good intentions and good will towards them, then who knows how things might change in time?  I learnt much in those short minutes of confession from this wise young priest. I shan’t ever forget what he taught me.

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I didn’t swim in Neum – taking pictures was all I cared to do down on that beach. David Bugeja (c) 2018

All Text and Photographs Copyright (c) David Bugeja 2019

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