We had already passed two abandoned train stations with no windows, one of them with a cow in the doorway, while cycling down the Ciro Trail created by a rail-to-trail project in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. So it felt quite different to emerge from that apocalyptic former war zone and park our bikes in front of another train station that is now a hotel and restaurant: Gostionica Zavala. There good food, fine wine, and comfortable suites awaited.
Why would tourists come to such an obscure location in rural Bosnia-Herzegovina? There are three good reasons, actually, if staying in an old train station from the Austro-Hungarian Empire days is not enough. The Vjetrenica Caves are a short walk away. You’ll feel these caverns before you get there because of the blast of cold air coming out of them. Inside there’s a path, lit stalagmites and stalactites, and a blind salamander. It’s got a UNESCO World Heritage designation too.
Zavala Monastery is up the hill from the station. From there and the hotel, the view is of serene mountains and farmland. It’s also a great stop for anyone touring the area on two wheels, as I was on a Balkans Triangle tour from Biking Croatia and Biketours.com. If you ride the whole trail from close to Dubrovnik to Mostar, it’s around 100 miles. For the stretch we did from Ivanica it was still more than half a day of riding without a soul around.
Our hotel’s host didn’t speak much English, but he made up for it by being one of the most talented multi-taskers I’ve ever met. The manager of Gostionica Zavala is innkeeper, bartender, and waiter at once. I would imagine he has also broken up a fight or two and helped musicians get set up to perform as well. He was doubly busy the day we rolled up because a Serbian film crew was making a historic TV show at the monastery. There were horses, there was armor, and there were swords. Soon the actors shed all that though and opened up their laptops as they drank a few beers after filming.
The highlight for us was dinner, which we were doubly ready for after biking all day. It was something special though, a Bosnian “saç” dish where lamb, vegetables, and in our case chicken was cooked for hours in a shallow ceramic pot under hot coals. With a good bottle of local wine and our attentive hospitality king working the room, it was one of the best dinners I had in the Balkans.
Rooms here are also a pleasant surprise, with just four of them in this former railway station all being suites. Bedrooms with beams and a skylight are a good size, then there’s a full living room with a sectional leather sofa and cable TV so you can really feel right at home. Since this is a quiet village with next to nothing going on at night, you’re pretty much assured of getting a good night’s sleep.
Then in the morning you can eat a hearty local breakfast in the covered outdoor area or in the attractive indoor dining room that feels cozy and inviting. Despite the small staff and limited facilities, they clearly take pride in their food here and use a lot of ingredients that come from the nearby farms.
Rates at Gostionica Zavala generally run between $70 and $80 double, including VAT and breakfast, which is a great deal for these suite apartments.
Unfortunately the official website is only in the local language, so you’ll have to pull up Google Translate to make any sense of it if you’re from outside the Balkans. There is a listing for the restaurant on Tripadvisor though. The best way to book a room is to go to this Booking.com home page and search “Zavala.” You’ll be glad you went to the effort if you’re anywhere near the wine growing coast of Croatia north of Dubrovnik.