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Published: September 3rd 2012
As soon as we pulled away from the hostel, the Serbian turbo-folk started blaring - repeating a phrase that sounded very much like “a cup of tea!” - from prominently placed speakers and the van started hopping up and down and jigging to the side, tossing the fifteen tour group members around like dice in a jar. There was a look of vague terror in everyone’s eyes. What had we gotten ourselves into? And for TWELVE hours? I had thoughts of tossing myself out the door whenever we started to slow down…. Welcome to the wild ride that is Bata’s tour of Mostar and Herzegovina!
When I booked a dorm bed at Hostel Magdas in Mostar, I knew that they ran a popular tour of the surrounding area. There were hints that it was unusual (“Did you meet Bata? He’s, well, energetic…”), but how different could it really be from the standard circuit of historical and natural sights? I handed over my 55 Bosnian marks and naively expected to sit back and relax for the day.
But as soon as the door to the hostel burst open, accompanied by the sound of a very loud bicycle horn and an
equally raucous “GOOD MORNING!”, I knew we were in trouble. Energetic? Understatement of the year! Bata herded our bewildered group of backpackers (a word Bata loved to cluck as often as he could: “Backpackers! Backpackers!”) out to his van – which he referred to as his “girlfriend”. And then he did his absolute best to scare people out of joining the trip during his pre-tour “pep talk”. “Backpackers, the van registration states 8+1 – I made it 8+12!” “Backpackers, there’s no air conditioning!” “Backpackers, you will be horrified by the music when I translate the lyrics!” All this shouted at the top of his lungs...
Everyone laughed nervously, unsure just how much of a joke it all was. But no one backed out.
And, oddly, in the end, even I was happy I braved the insanity!
It quickly became apparent that Bata’s unorthodox approach to guiding a group of foreigners was a deliberate attempt to unsettle us, to make us think about what was really insane: all that Mostar and Bosnia-Herzegovina had suffered during the war and continues to experience (but throwing in a little fun and dark humor, too).
With that goal in
mind, the first part of the tour, the Mostar bit, did not concentrate on the famous Old Town and the iconic Stari Most (Old Bridge). “Backpackers! You can see that on your own!” Rather, Bata drove us through areas few if any tourists visit. He showed us the rapid development of the “Croatian” side of town, with its fancy coffee shops and gleaming shopping malls (six built in one year! Another, a repurposed school…). He showed us the new Croat university center, with its high-tech buildings, contrasting it to the university center on the “Bosnian” side of the city which shares grounds with a refugee camp and military installation, with a “gate” knocked out of a former military wall. He pointed out the football stadium that had once been the home of the local Mostar club, but which now is “leased” to a Croatian team. He showed us the renovated buildings along the former front line that stand eerily vacant since they are just facades – they have no electrical wiring or running water. He showed us the resurrected Austro-Hungarian birthday cake like school, all strips of varying shades of orange, that is the only school in the city where
Croats and Bosniaks study in the same building – but not in the same classrooms. If we had not noticed before the tour, we were made to see how divided the city remains since they war ended. A division – Croat versus Bosniak – that had not been so sharp before the conflict.
Leaving Mostar, we embarked on a grand sweep of Herzegovinian territory. The reason the country is, and has long been, Bosnia AND Herzegovina is that this area had been ruled by a self-proclaimed “Herceg” (from the German word Herzog for “duke”) Stjepan Vukčić Kosaća during the period when the medieval Bosnian kingdom was weakening, before the Ottomans took control. The name stuck, and ever since Herzegovina has been an integral part of Bosnia. Bata pointed out the duke’s castle high on a hill, near the town of Blagaj, which would actually be our last stop of the day.
First stop was the Catholic pilgrimage boomtown of Međugorje, site of a supposed Virgin Mary appearance in 1981. During the Yugoslav era, the pilgrimage “industry” was suppressed but in the years since the end of the Bosnian war, the area has convulsed in development, fueled by millions
of pilgrim and expat dollars. I am not sure I have ever seen such a brazen mix of religiosity and commercialism; it sort of turned my stomach. I have to admit I was happy to say farewell to Međugorje and head to something far more holy in my eyes: the natural wonder of the Kravice (“Backpackers, midget cows!”) Waterfalls.
Much of Herzegovina is an arid, Mediterranean landscape, quite different from the more temperate clime of Sarajevo, just two hours away. The land is stony and covered in hardscrabble shrub or vineyards. So it is quite spectacular to find in this dry world waterfalls gushing OUT of limestone cliffs into clear, blue pools of refreshingly cool water. Here, after a long harangue about what to do and not to do, Bata left us to our own devices for a couple hours. Giddily, we clambered up slippery rocks into the splash pools and caves hidden behind the cascades. It was like a natural water park, made just for us to cool off after a hot van ride with crazy Bata.
After a typically meat-centric Bosnian lunch – would you like some meat with your meat? – Bata bundled us into
his “girlfriend” and off we went again in an eardrum bursting blast of turbo-folk. We weren’t sure where he was taking us, as we sped down extremely narrow, but still two-way, roads twisting through the hills. We didn’t even know when he finally pulled up to the remains of a grey fortress wall. We followed him sheepishly through the main gate – “Backpackers! How can it be a main gate when it is the ONLY gate?!” – and down an ancient cobblestone road. Then there it was: a picture perfect panorama of Počitelj, an Ottoman era fortress town built of stone in a natural amphitheater. Although it was largely destroyed during the war – as it had had a predominately Muslim population – it has largely been rebuilt. But there is a ghostliness to its rejuvenation; many of the homes remain empty, as few families were comfortable returning after the destruction. We did, however, get to enjoy some Bosnian hospitality at one of the homes that is still in use. We were offered bowls of fresh fruits – figs, plums, grapes, peaches – picked from the little orchards in the town, glasses of syrups – mint, elderflower, pomegranate – and
cups of Bosnian coffee. I think everyone on the tour found this stop a highlight.
But although night had set, we were not finished. Bata, forcing us to jump into the van as it rolled by Počitelj’s “main” gate, had other plans. With his now expected maniacal pace, we zipped down the hill and on to Blagaj, the town we had spotted in the distance earlier in the tour. He parked just below the Duke’s castle, lost in the darkness high above us, and guided us to a floodlit Ottoman building tucked beneath an imposing, outward slanting cliff. This is a famous tekija/tekke (sufi center), originally founded by the Bektashis. For Bata, this was the spiritual beginning of Bosnia, as he claims that the tekija is built on the site of an earlier Bogomil religious retreat, a mysterious Christian group that some Bosnians see as their precursors – the group that makes all Bosnians, no matter whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Muslim, one people.
Just for that quiet moment, sitting in the silent stillness across the river from the tekija, the turbo (folk)-charged tour was more than worth it. "Backpackers, here we go!"
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