Bosna i Hercegovina
For 17 days I rambled around the Balkans region exploring cities, countryside and islands and coming to the conclusion that this is one of my favorite regions in Europe. After four flights and a day trip in Vienna, my companion and I landed late at night in Sarajevo as the only aircraft at the entire airport. In retrospect, SJJ reminded me a lot of the Key West airport--small and kind of shabby, you walk across the tarmac and there are exactly two carousels for luggage.
We had been told that there would be a bus that could take us from the airport to the central part of the city, and a sign outside the airport confirmed that. Though we waited and waited and waited for a bus to show up, and when one finally did, he managed to communicate that he was going to the garage but kindly dropped us off at a nearby tram stop. Rickety and smothered in graffiti, the tram pulled up and even though we were two lone women in standing in a deserted part of town in the middle of the night, we felt completely safe getting on this ghost of public transport. But we quickly learned that Sarajevo lives for the night as the tram filled with bedazzled women and sharp-looking men heading out for some midnight fun. A couple of hooligans pulled out their paints and added to the "art" inside the tram, but the 20-minute ride gave me the feeling that I was really going to like this town.
We stumbled across our apartment wedged at the back of a narrow alley, and after meeting Edith, our host, we both collapsed into bed. The next morning was bright and hot and smoky--apparently Sarajevo is a lot like Salt Lake, where dirty air gets trapped in the valley, and the fact that almost everyone here uses wood stoves for heat doesn't help. We were visiting Sarajevo during the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, which meant many of the shops in the old town district were closed but the streets were packed with families visiting from the Middle East. We didn't have much interest in shopping anyway, so we wandered.
We stayed close to Old Town at first, though the streets around the mosques became increasingly crowded with holiday worshipers. We found where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and climbed the steep hills to the Yellow Bastion--a part of the ancient city walls--passing huge cemeteries on the way. Taking respite from the heat at the top of the Bastion, we sat for awhile in the shade, enjoying the view and some refreshing tea. We meandered through one of Sarajevo's largest cemeteries on the way down, where most of the graves are from the war in the 1990s. At the bottom, there was a small section with older Turkish-era headstones weathered and rugged from the centuries. Turns out, if you were a notable person back in the day, your headstone would be shaped like your turban, which explained many of the stand-out graves. Patches of old cemetery like this are scattered throughout the city.
Again seeking respite from the heat, we hit the museum circuit. Sarajevo has a multitude of arts and culture galleries and a whole slew of museums dedicated to war-time atrocities. We first stopped by Gallery 11-7-95, a photographic exhibit about the Srbrenica massacre where more than 8000 Muslim men and boys were killed by the Serbs over a period of a few days. Strolling the streets afterward to lighten the mood, we soon dove back into it with the War Childhood Museum, a collection of objects donated by people who were children during the war. It's a small museum tucked away on a backstreet, but its density and attention to detail make it one of the best museums I have ever been to. The organization is hoping to put together an exhibit on the Syrian war childhood experience and to showcase in larger cities around the world. Unfortunately, our museum tour missed the War Crimes Museum and the Sarajevo Tunnels exhibit as well as many of the historical museums scattered around the city.
After refreshing ourselves with a long walk through the Austro-Hungarian side of town to The Brew Pub to sample some Bosnian craft beer, we returned to Old Town to find the main streets packed with families and others enjoying the holiday. One or two blocks over, the club scene started to fill the area with beats and music. We couldn't stay out too late, though. Our train to Mostar would leave at 7 a.m. the next morning, so we just satiated our evening out with ice cream and more walking. The tram ride the night before was right: I did really like this town.
We struggled to keep our eyes open to take in the stunning scenery during our train ride south to Mostar, but failed for a large part of the three-hour journey. The landscape was dotted with small villages sporting mosque minarets, though rolling hills were sparse. Jagged mountains an winding rivers broke up the land and it was mind boggling to think that people fled over this terrain during the war. Once the train pulled up alongside the teal-colored Naretva river, we knew Mostar wasn't far off.
The small city revolves around the UNESCO World Heritage old bridge, a giant pointed arch bridge spanning the river and connecting the two sections of Old Town. The bridge is the crown jewel of the area and beloved by residents. Near the end of the war, it was struck by a shell and destroyed, though it was rebuilt 10 years later from original stones fished out of the river, so the heart and soul is still there.
Mostar is a day-trip town, and from the hours of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. is packed with tourists from nearby Croatia. But the tourist mania is centered around Old Town, and we found that wandering just a little way off produced a much calmer environment to explore. In 2005, a bronze statue of Bruce Lee was unveiled in a park on the west side of the river, dedicated to the apparent kung fu craze Yugoslavs had during the 1980s. Many buildings remain hollow shells after the war and, as in Sarajevo, bullet holes are still apparent on most facades. The city goes about its business, though, and it's obvious that recovery is an ongoing process.
We made our way down to the river banks to dip our feet in the very, very cold Naretva but were surprised at the amount of broken glass on the shore and in the water. With care, we managed to dip out feet in without injury. Several young men were jumping off a makeshift platform across the water and a man we presumed was there coach would either scream at them or clap exaggeratedly after each jump. We learned a lot about proper diving form from his reactions. The jumping turned out to be practice for the main event: Leaping off the old bridge 79 feet to the frigid water below. As call to prayer surreally echoed around the city, each man climbed to the top of the bridge, raised his arms and jumped. It was silent until he resurfaced, and then the crowd went wild. Later, the diving coach collected tips from atop the bridge.
We stopped by a few cultural installations including a War Photo Limited exhibition and the Hamam Museum (an entertaining way to learn about Turkish baths), and though we were wanting to explore other areas of Herzegovina by public transportation, we ended up joining a small tour the next day for a trip to a few landmarks.
The rain the next morning was heavy but our small group (us, a couple from New York and the tour guide) were not miffed by the weather. We first stopped by Blagaj, a centuries-old Turkish monastery built in the shadow of an enormous cliff. We had to completely cover ourselves to enter, but viewing 300-year-old carpets and intricately carved ceilings was worth the extra layers. The water from the river is apparently drinkable and we were encourage to have a taste. We were then whisked away to a Serbian Orthodox monastery where we huddled under gorgeous murals while the rain pounded away. The weather magically cleared on the drive to Pocitelj and allowed us to climb to ruins of the fortress secured on the mountain above. We scrambled over ruins and squeezed through narrow passages to explore the ruins and found some amazing views in the process. The only downside to our tour was that we were only allowed a short amount of time to explore each location, and were soon shuttled to our final stop: Kravica Falls.
We had all been looking forward to swimming around the falls, but the weather kept us at bay for awhile. We at delicious Cevapi sausages and sampled loza, a type of rakija or herbal liquor, that warmed our chests. The falls were a majestic array of tumbling water that is apparently surrounded by more green in the spring, but still stunning in the fall. Despite the weather, there were plenty of other tourists around to gander at the falls and some even took the plunge into the pool at the bottom. Mostly, though, we sat bundled up enjoying the amicable camaraderie of nature.
On our return to Mostar, we found ourselves wandering to a tea house on the west turret of the old bridge. It was small and cozy, empty of tourists except ourselves so we nestled into a corner with windows overlooking the bridge and river. The owner regaled us with tales of his survival during the war and insisted that many famous people had been to this tea house. We were sitting where Bono and Bill Clinton once sat. He conversed with us for well over an hour, saying what a lovely place this city is because even though it is still ethnically divided (Croats on the west bank and Muslims on the east), no one cares about mixed heritage or mixed families. We sipped our tea and watched the rain sprinkle on and off, chatting until we were hungry enough to leave and find a meal.
Our last night in Bosnia consisted of taking one last stroll through an empty Old Town and gazing over the river from the bridge. Tomorrow would take us to Croatia.