Split countries, the Virgin Mary and Mujahadeen


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October 14th 2010
Published: October 14th 2010
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From the Montenegrin border Jon and I bought a ticket for a bus that would take us to neighbouring Bosnia & Herzegovina and the city of Mostar - the very name of which evoke images of bloody carnage and, of course, thatbridge.

But things didn't quite go to plan. What we thought would be the bus taking the direct route inland to Mostar instead turned into a coastal route up through Croatia. High above the sea the 'Jewel of the Adriatic' suddenly came into view - Dubrovnik - the medieval walled city was very beautiful but I chose not to stay. I would leave it for another time when I could stomach the crowds.

We picked up some passengers and then we drove further north up the coast entering Bosnia Herzegovina's slither of land that gives it access to the sea - and the second border crossing of the day, but certainly not the last. In order to take the main road into Herzegovina we had to re-enter Croatia a second time - the fourth border crossing. We had to produce our passports upon exiting as well as entering each country’s borders - so I think I showed my passport to border guards at least six times. Jon had his British passport examined more closely than me - but then he didn’t exactly look European let alone British.

Mostar


After a much longer journey than expected we eventually arrived in Mostar late at 8pm and much later than we had expected. The Ottoman style mosques with their tall, thin minarets and women in Islamic headscarves worn tightly around their upper body told us that we were in the Bosnian Muslim side of the river and city.

The station was gloomy; it had been raining in Mostar and there were large puddle of water everywhere. My body was in shock at the cold night wind - a rude awakening from the months of sunshine and heat from Iran to Montenegro.

There isn’t a hostel in Mostar - not yet anyway so we made our way on foot to the recommended ‘Magdalena’s Homestay’ but despite the directions there were in fact two petrol stations beside the bus station, so confused we retreated back from where we’d come. It was here we found Magdalena who with a smile asked us if we had a reservation - a question which perplexed me as I tried to stop my teeth from chattering in the cold. To our surprise her rooms were fully booked but we could look at another woman’s house - which I’d remembered from outside the bus holding a picture of a room and managing to obstruct us.

She was blond (perhaps peroxide), gaunt in her face and looked as if she had a twenty cigarettes a day habit - but then perhaps this was common in this former war zone. We followed her through the dilapidated apartment blocks adjacent to the station, climbing graffiti daubed stairwells and windy corridors and then into a small modest apartment. It was gloomily lit, sparsely furnished and the shower was in with the boiler as well as the washing machine. On the wall was a framed photo of a young man in uniform - which I assumed was a son or brother killed in the fighting for the city. It conjured up very distinct memories from my teenage years watching the news on television of families hiding in their homes in the face of shells and sniper fire.

The owner didn’t speak much English but the room was two single beds and considering it was late, we were both tired and it was only 10 Euros each a night - we took it. That night we got more in the mood for Bosnia by watching on the laptop a film about the war, the british film 'Welcome to Sarajevo’ and one of Jon’s favourite movies. It must seem odd but it was very good.

The next morning Jon had the idea of hiring a car and driving for a few days around Bosnia - it would give us more freedom to do what we wanted and not have to rely on the buses. It seemed a great idea and we had a few hours to kill in the city whilst we waited to pick up the Skoda.

The city’s buildings were still pock-marked by bullet holes and mortar shells caused by the brutal city fighting between the city’s Croat and Bosnian Muslim population. But this is what I had come to see; the ruined face of war that I had grown up watching on television night after night in my teenage years; a by-product of which is now my staunch interventionist streak that includes Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. Mostar means ‘keeper of the bridge’ and that bridge being the Ottoman era old bridge (Stari Most) that was built in 1556 and was the symbol of the city and also the dividing line during the bloody inter-ethnic war between 1991 and 1995. It was deliberately targeted by Croat forces from the hills overlooking the city and was destroyed from a direct hit in 1993. Since 2004 it’s been completely rebuilt with the stones that were retrieved as well as through traditional masonry techniques; a triumphant cross also stands where the Catholic Croat artillery positions were.

Actually crossing the bridge is done by foot and best done without flat shoes, it is steep and the cobbled stones are extremely slippery. The old part of the town is full of Ottoman character such as old wooden and stone houses and not so much character - namely souvenir selling shops. Jon and I went for a walk around where the front lines were and the buildings that still lay gutted and bullet strewn. Interestingly out of 40 or so mosques in the city only one of two escaped destruction by Serb and Croat shells - but they too have now been restored. Our last visit was to the Catholic Cathedral which is not only huge but has a domineering church tower as well. It seems the Croats are intent on having the biggest and tallest in the city of Mostar. The city was fascinating as a living history of war and I wanted to find out more about the war. But the bookshop Jon remembered from his previous visit three year previous had now disappeared - so I was left with my own words.

We picked up the car and immediately Jon proved to be a nervous and erratic driver. He should have been used to driving on the right side of the road having lived in the UK. However he seemed to have spatial awareness issues and trouble using his breaks punctually. This in turn made me nervous, but as I wasn’t the one driving I respectfully tried to make light of our little road incidents.

Medugorje



Our first stop on the road was Medugorje - a small village which is now a place of pilgrimage for Catholics from around the world. The Virgin Mary has supposedly been appearing to a bunch of kids since the early 1980s and given messages to the Faithful. It’s not officially sanctioned by Rome unlike the Marian shrines at Lourdes, Knock and Fatima but that doesn’t stop the hordes of Irish, Poles, Italians and Spaniards turning up en masse for blessings - that includes my own mother by the way. I passed an Irish pub, hotel and tawdry ‘Irish Centre’ and I wondered how long it would be before I heard my first Irish accent in Medugorje - five minutes it turned out.

The place is really not as tacky as I thought it would be - in fact compared to Lourdes it’s markedly underdeveloped. There are certainly souvenir shops for the pilgrims but there is only one church and well, there weren’t very many people about when we were there.

We climbed the rocky hill to where the apparitions first occurred on June 24 1981. Along the way we passed pilgrims in barefoot and groups praying at the Stations of the Cross - as a permanently lapse Catholic this sign of devotion got to me a little, dare I say a damp around the eyes moment a la Brian Sewell in The Naked Pilgrim. I was tested too. As we sat parked in I noticed something laying on ground in front of the car - so I got out and retrieved it. Back in the car I had in my hands a wallet protected i-phone - and for someone who hasn’t actually owned a phone for a few months and would like to have a free one this was a lucky find. However, my conscience awoke and I didn’t like the fact that someone had lost their phone and an expensive one at that and I had it in my possession. So I glanced over at the bus that was parked up and asked the tour guide if anyone had lost their phone. Someone had but the nonchalant Dubliner who put himself forward could barely muster a thank you which pissed me off mightily. However my work was done and I was hoping it would protect us from Jon’s jittery driving.

I wanted to buy a souvenir or a holy medallion for my Irish and still very Catholic parents but the trinkets, statues and multi-coloured rosary beads seemed garish and pointless so we left with nothing. Our next stop was the fortress of Pocitelj which is beside a river in a valley and has lots of Ottoman houses surrounding it. As you can imagine the climb through the narrow streets and past the Ottoman mosques rewards said travellers with impressive views.

I was feeling guilty about not having bought any souvenirs back in Medugorje so I bought a t-shirt of the town. It’s a round neck and ugly but it does say have Pocitelj written on it and an illustration of the castle - job done.

My earlier good deed I’d hoped would save me from Jon’s jittery driving - but we began a turn off the main road and violently the car stopped. A car was directly behind us and we were lucky that they did not come through the back of us.

We headed back to Mostar and afterwards followed the road along the Neretva River. It was twilight at the end of a hot sunny day so were entranced by the winding rollercoaster of a drive with spectacular towering cliffs on either side of us. Jon did not want to drive at night and indeed it wasn’t recommended in Bosnia but we kept on going in order to save on having to drive the following day. Jon thought he knew a place he had stayed at a few years previous so we headed for that - eventually hitting a petrol station Bugojno and the attached motel.

We left early the next morning in order to get to Jajce at a decent hour in time for a full day before returning the car in Sarajevo. We were in the mountains so it was a bit nippy that morning but the sun was out and the views from the even windier roads were spectacular; I’ve never before been on a road with so many hair pins - this place is waiting for a BBC Top Gear Special. We passed through towns that still had pock-marks in the houses but Jon said that things had changed a significant amount in the three years he had last been here. At Jajce we checked out a hall where Tito and his Communist lot met in 1943 - a gold bust of Tito, flags of the Allies and even Tito’s original comfy seat. Drafty though! We crossed the river and the massive waterfall that rather incongruously sits in middle of the town. We then climbed up to the citadel and looked out over the town - with its remnants off burnt-out buildings, minarets and church steeples. One of the steeples is the Tower of St Luke which before the Turks turned up in 1459 reputedly held the bones of St. Mark after which they were transferred to Venice and then Padua in Italy.

Our next stop on our driving tour was the pretty town of Travnik, former capital of Bosnia Herzegovina and seat of the Turkish viziers who ruled it from 1699 to 1851. More recently when the Serbs and Croats agreed to carve up Bosnia amongst themselves - this was one place that was never captured - a strong hold of Bosnian Muslim resistance. This is still the case as I saw more women wearing tight headscarves than anywhere else in the Balkans. I also saw plenty of men with long beards and some were darker than your usual Bosniak. Sat at a cafe we noticed three young Asian men with English accents and equally long beards taking in the sights - which piqued my interest. During the war this area attracted Jihadists and Mujahadeen from across the Islamic world who fought against the Serbs and Croats - earning a reputation for brutality and torture. Many of those fighters who came stayed on and were given citizenship in gratitude - something which is now problematic for a prospective E.U. such as B&H.

We didn’t stay long in the town but we did visit the Many-Coloured Mosque which is one of prettiest I’ve visited anywhere and we had it to ourselves that afternoon, barefoot in the homely interior. On our way exiting the city a pedestrian crossed the street in front of us but Jon erratically left it very late to use his breaks so there was a weird moment when the guy jumped about a bit to avoid us.

Our next destination was Sarajevo - finally leaving behind the so-called speed limit of 65 Kilometres an hour - surely a mistake made by the hire company girl. This time we hit a stretch that took us to 130 kph and we were soon in the city on a wide boulevard that was once called ‘Sniper’s Alley’ from the time when the time when the city was besieged by Bosnian Serb forces. As ever the large apartment blocks still have mortar and bullet holes in them but the city is large and we were not in the centre as yet. Jon bought a bus ticket for the punishing 12 hour journey up to Ljubljana in Slovenia the following day. We then went to a guest stay that he had visited before. It was overpriced and gaudy but the woman was friendly, we had our own TV and fridge.

The following morning we had just enough time before handing back the car to the rental firm to do one very interesting tourist sight. However, we didn’t have a map so we were in the dark about where exactly it was (along with other cars) it was on the other side of the airport but Jon nearly had a baby whilst getting there. The Tunnel Museum is a house that marks the entrance to the tunnel that was dug beneath the airport that was the sole lifeline for the people of Sarajevo during the three year siege. To put into perspective - over 10,500 Sarejevans died and over 50,000 were injured by sniper bullets during the siege. The tunnel is mostly collapsed by now and it was only 800 metres long but if it wasn’t for this lifeline the city would have fallen and then what? Unfortunately the stress of driving in Sarajevo was getting to Jon; first we ran over a pigeon in the street and then in Sniper Alley we had dickhead drivers suddenly changing lanes and not indicating; in fact very nearly making us crash into the back of them. All this minutes before we returned the hire car.

We finally gave the car over in a building behind the Holiday Inn - landmark and heavily featured in the film Welcome to Sarajevo and left it with tow lovely looking local girls. We then took our bags and walked into the city centre - along the way I impulsively dashed into a travel agency and inquired as to flight prices to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It was just over 100 Euros and seeing as the bus took 8 hours and would be half that I bought a ticket for the next day. That meant that I had a full day in Sarajevo to explore. Jon and I said our final goodbyes at the front door of the hostel I was moving to - he was going to buy a few souvenirs and then head off to his bus. Despite being pretty quiet and perhaps me over compensating Jon and I got along as well as could be expected. As travel companions we were lucky that we had similar travelling itineraries as well as ideas about what was worth spending money on. I wished him luck in his new move to Prince Edward Island.

The rest of the day was spent checking out the Ottoman era mosques and walking around the very pretty old town quarter with its cobbled streets and visiting the bazaar. I spent a little while contemplating at the Latin Bridge where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead along with his wife by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. Unfortunately the museum wasn’t terribly informative about how and why this caused the first great cataclysm of the Twentieth Century. I know of course - but does anyone else care to tell the rest?

To my surprise I then noticed that the Iranians had an official presence in Sarajevo - a shop selling holidays and traditional Persian handicrafts. I finally got to a book shop - a great one in fact with lots of English titles, but sadly very over priced and so I never did get to read ‘The Death of Yugoslavia’ which I was so desperate to read during my time here. My travels in the Balkans have given me cause to purchase a long list of books that I want to read.

The next morning my flight from Sarajevo to Belgrade was with B&H Airlines -no not a packet of cigarettes but an actual real airline. I was leaving the city on a two rotor aeroplane with about 50 empty seats and 20 other passengers - less than an hour later and I was in Serbia...


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18th October 2010
NOT photo shopped! Me with Jajce's waterfall

Thats and amazing photo! :)
18th October 2010

yes it is amazing..ly surreal!
25th November 2010
NOT photo shopped! Me with Jajce's waterfall

He, he cool pic! Seat of medieval Bosnian Kingdom, under line of Tomašević (last Bosnian King Stjepan came from this line & 'lost' his head in Jajce 1463 by Mehmed II FATİH The Conqueror hand (I think))

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