Category Archives: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Summary of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Listen backpackers- forget Western Europe, Bosnia is where it’s at.  Where else do you get this culture, this scenery, these prices anywhere else?  Trust me, you will thank me for adding it to your itinerary.

Highlights:

- Sarajevo is definitely one of the loveliest cities in Europe.  To top it off there is more history and culture in it than you find on some continents, and everyone sits around all day drinking Bosnian coffee.  What’s not to like?

- The scenery in Bosnia is just amazing and some of the best I’ve seen on this journey.  Mostar is a great little town too, though if you have the choice of an extra night there or Sarajevo it definitely goes to the latter city. (I’m cheating in this picture above- it looks like the Stari Grad of Mostar but is actually the goat bridge north of Sarajevo, built in the same style and also on the old road to Constantinople.)

- The prices, my goodness, the prices!  It’s not quite the land of dollar beers that I found in Asia, but it is the land of $2 beers so I am totally ok with this.  I got a room to myself in Sarajevo for under $20, for example, and a bunk in Mostar for $13.  After Western Europe, my wallet is happy I came here!

- Bosnian food is surprisingly good and tasty.  If someone wants to open a Bosnian restaurant back home I will help in putting up capital because I know you will get it back a few times over!  Provided I get food for free, of course.

Lowlights:

- It was good to see, of course, but this country’s recent history is never far off.  You will inevitably make good friends who will tell you stories of what it was like to have their friends and relatives die and have each day be a fight for survival and, well, it’s incredibly heartbreaking.  But no one said you travel to only see the good, I guess…

- The museum in Sarajevo devoted to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand leaves a little to be desired so far as content goes- this picture of the weapons used to kill the Archduke are by far the most interesting thing as the rest is devoted to random paraphernalia it seems someone found in an old attic.  But they charge you next to nothing to see it on the bright side.

Mostar

As long as I’m confessing random things about my personality I’ve learned while traveling, it turns out one of my favorite things is simply the act of travel itself.  I sit on trains and buses and who knows what else an awful lot, but stick me on one of these and I will spend several hours in happy reverie doing nothing but watching passing scenery and thinking about something or another.  It has gotten to the point where I am always a little sad when I reach my final stop, wishing instead that I could stay in transit forever, which I realize is an odd thing but anyone who hates the travel part of travel probably wouldn’t last six months in this business.

When it comes to the travel attitude, though, I think everyone would feel the same upon finding themselves on the road in Bosnia-

It’s supremely beautiful.  Another picture to drive the point home-

Wow!  These mountains are spectacular.  Very New Zealand actually, which is the highest compliment I am capable of giving any range of mountains.

When I finally (sigh) got to Mostar and settled into the hostel, I set out for the Old Town.  Mostar is the capital of Herzegovina and not at all big, but it does have a particularly famous bridge-

Stari Most, which translates into “Old Bridge,” was  built in the sixteenth century on the route to Constantinople.  At the time it was the biggest arch in the world, and it was such an architectural feat that people still aren’t quite certain how it was constructed.

A side view of the bridge.  The top of the arch is about 20 meters from the cold, fast-moving water but that doesn’t stop some knuckle-headed divers from jumping off the bridge every  summer.  Obviously it’s not recommended without a bit of training first with such a height, but it’s sort of a macho thing for the local guys to do I suppose.

Walking up Stari Most- man, this thing is steep…

And at the top!

By the way, it should be noted that this is not the original Old Bridge, but rather paradoxically called the New Old Bridge.  This is because Mostar was the scene of the heaviest fighting in the Yugoslav Wars, between Bosniaks and Croats, so tragically the Old Bridge was destroyed by Croat forces in an attempt to destroy all Ottoman architecture in Mostar. (It is worth noting however that the general who ordered the bridge’s destruction is now facing trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for this among other war crimes.) Once the war was over they started rebuilding efforts, and the bridge was finally opened again in 2004.  There’s still an incredible amount of ravaged buildings in the area however, more than anywhere I’ve seen in the Balkans-

I realize this picture isn’t the best of destruction but frankly I didn’t have the heart to take more pictures of people’s destroyed lives.  However, I find a sign telling drivers not to park next to ruins with a car underneath quite entertaining- though most people in this part of the world don’t speak English at all (if over 30 they’ll try German on you if you don’t speak Serbo-Croatian), implying the sign is really there for tourists rather than locals.

Speaking of random signs, why is Tony the Tiger telling us what the ice cream flavors are in Mostar?  Did he decide he needed to branch out from cereal promotion?

Another interesting thing about Mostar is how being just a few hours south of Sarajevo definitely gives it a lot more Middle Eastern feel, as shown by the belly dancer costumes and Turkish slippers for sale.  There are a surprising number of Middle Eastern in general and Turkish in particular tourists around here, actually, which is odd because I didn’t notice them in Sarajevo.

After a few hours of wandering, however, I was done with Mostar.  It’s pretty and worth a stop but frankly not that big- I suspect things are different in the summer when you can go out and explore the countryside and go swimming and such, but in this season not much is going on to keep a traveler’s attention.  I figured the season was just starting to pick up further south though, and left early the next morning for Split, Croatia.  I haven’t been to the beach in awhile anyway.

Taking in Recent History

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I can barely remember the siege Sarajevo. I mean yes, I remember hearing about something going on in Bosnia in the 1992-1995 timeframe, but there’s only so much you hear and care about when you’re starting elementary school so my knowledge extended about as far as reading Zlata’s Diary. So if you’re reading this and fall into that category, here is a brief summary of the Yugoslav War (keep in mind I pieced this together through talking to Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbians)- following the death of the dictator Tito in the 1980s the country of Yugoslavia he held together began to fall apart. Slovenians decided they wanted to live in Slovenia, Croats wanted to live in Croatia, Bosniaks wanted to live in Bosnia… you get the idea. What was the former Yugoslavia is actually seven countries now- Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovinia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia, listed here should you ever come across that card in Trivial Persuit.

The problem with this (and this is the part where I wish I’d meet a Serbian whose opinion I could ask) were the largest ethnic group in Yugoslavia, the Serbs. They’re a bit famous for being nationalistic, and while there’s nothing wrong with that they insisted that every Serbian had a right to live in “greater Serbia” and they were outraged by a recent (Serbian) report saying that the minority ethnicities in the country were getting a better slice of the pie than Serbians (pop quiz- when did you hear rhetoric like that in Europe before?), so they went to war in all these new countries on behalf of the minority Serbs living in each country. In Slovenia it didn’t last long, and I’ll be covering Croatia later, and Kosovo I figure everyone remembers better. But none of them really compare to the war in Bosnia, where the Serbian forces committed war crimes against Bosniaks in an effort to make the Serbian areas of the country exclusively Serbian (pop quiz answer- yep, last time there was a genocide). The U.S. brokered peace in Bosnia in 1995 with the Dayton Accords, meaning Bill Clinton is extremely popular around here.

Anyway, Sarajevo. For nearly four years, that is to say the extent of the conflict in Bosnia, the city was under siege by Serbian forces, making it the longest-sieged city in modern history. Each day several hundred shells were dropped on the city pretty much everywhere, and by the end over 10,000 people were dead and over 50,000 wounded. (The Serbs never got in though. Bosnians explain this by saying Serbs weren’t good fighters, or at least no match for people fighting for their lives.)

Look up onto the hills in Sarajevo and you soon come across graveyards like the one pictured above, most belonging to twentysomething soldiers but hundreds of civilians were killed too. Walk through the streets today and it’s hard to believe such a bright, new, youthful city could have such a recent past until you remember the reason things look new is because so much was completely destroyed and there are so many young people because so many older ones left or were killed.

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If you look around Sarajevo today, though, you begin to notice things- how the walls of apartment buildings often have bullet holes in the walls, and while streetfronts are built up the backs are often still destroyed. Take this house, which was right next to the hostel I was staying at. I’m told it was hit by several grenades during the war and no one is quite sure who owns the house as the former owner fled, so there it sits.

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This is me in the famous Sarajevo Tunnel, completed in 1993 and considered by many to be what saved the city as it allowed supplies to come in and people to go out. The tunnel runs 800 meters under the then-UN controlled airport that stood between Sarajevo and the Bosniak-controlled territory- before it was completed you needed to run across the airport for supplies, exposed to fire from Serbian forces and being pursued by UN soldiers who would send you back if caught. (The UN also enforced a weapons embargo that every defender hates with venom, as attacking armies tend to have lots more weaponry than defending civilian populations.) Most of the tunnel has since collapsed, but the house where it started is now a museum.

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My guide out to the Sarajevo Tunnel was S., the 25 year old son of the hostel owner (who is such a charming and attractive fellow that every girl in the hostel had a crush on him). He showed me around the museum with a running commentary of what it was like to grow up in Sarajevo during the war- how he spent most of his life in his grandfather’s basement, how his father had gone through the tunnel to buy the family food, and where his uncle’s name was on the list of dead who had been hit by a piece of shrapnel on his temple. (“Bad luck,” he shrugged.)

The moment that hit closest to home though for me was when we came across an old M.R.E. in the museum, and his face lit up. “These were so good, you had some meat and vegetable and a little bit of sugar!” he smiled, thus being the first person I have met happy to eat an MRE. “And this plastic they wrapped it with- look how slippery it is- we loved this, it was perfect for sliding in the snow…”

And that was the point when I decided that I am never complaining about my life again, ever.

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After the Tunnel Museum we went up the hill to the old Jewish cemetary- before World War II Sarajevo was over 10% Jewish, though only a small handful live there now. The cemetary is important because this was the closest the Serbs got to the city and it shows on the gravestones- the above is the remains of the pummeled Holocaust memorial- with only a street marking the distance between Serb and Bosnian forces.

The other interesting thing is there is a small stadium at the bottom of the road leading to the Jewish cemetery owned by one of the Bosnian football clubs. Obviously the thing was wrecked and covered in minefields during the war, but cleaning things up came out of the scant money of the football club. As a result, the night before I went on this tour marked the first night they had stadium lighting for a game there since 1992.image475

Back to the Jewish cemetery, here is the view the Serbian troops had down to Sarajevo (the city is nestled in a ring of hills, thus making it perfect for siege). The yellow building on the left is the famous Holiday Inn where all the Western journalists stayed while covering the war, the white skyscraper to its right is the parliament building that burned in an iconic photo of the war, and on the far right is Sniper Alley. Obviously it’s a pretty clear view that way, so civilians who needed to get supplies would either run like hell and pray for the best or wait for an armored UN truck to come by that they could walk behind.

Needless to say, it’s difficult to come to Sarajevo and not be moved by the tragedies that happened here. As humans it’s within our nature to assume bad things like war happen in this mythical “somewhere else” that doesn’t reach us, that maybe other people don’t suffer as badly in conditions we would consider intolerable. But if I were in charge of things, I think I would round up all the young people who are planning to go into politics and send them to Sarajevo. I would have them walk the streets where people died in a conflict that they can actually remember, make friends with people their age who speak matter-of-factly about things you never wish upon a living soul, and see a mother crying as she lays flowers on her child’s grave. I don’t pretend that this would solve our problems, but it would make suffering a little bit less and lives a little bit better.

Sarajevo

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I woke up in Pecs sad to leave Hungary, but pleased at the thought that it was a Stamp  Day.  For lack of better explanation Stamp Day has become an odd little bit of traveler’s excitement for me based on the days I get a new stamp in my passport- an event that never ceases to please me, but I am unfortunately so good at that I will need to visit an American embassy soon to get extra pages.  So it goes.

Anyway, I haven’t had a Stamp Day in awhile because there are no longer border crossings for most of Europe thanks to the Schenghen agreements, meaning I haven’t gotten a new one since arriving in Germany.  So getting three new stamps in one day on the rail journey to Sarajevo- one to leave the E.U. with a train on it, one to briefly pass through Croatia, and one to finally enter Bosnia and Herzegovina (aka “BiH”) itself- made me positively giddy.  Travel does weird things to you.

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My rail ticket to Sarajevo, which I thought was interesting because it was the first handwritten ticket I’ve gotten in Europe.  This is in contrast to Europe, where everything is handwritten to the point where it was normal to always write your name in a guesthouse ledger and whatnot… I wondered if this was an indicator of things to come and it was- BiH is not quite like the rest of Europe.

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Sarajevo!  I have to say I wasn’t sure what it would be like with the specter of recent history, but I fell in love with this place almost right away.  It is both geographically and culturally different from anywhere else in Europe- the Muslim influence means you get to hear the beautifully haunting calls to prayer, and everything was cheap enough to be reminiscint about Asia.  Put  it this way, it wasn’t the land of $1 beers but it was the land of $2 ones, and after shelling out as much as $10 for one in Western Europe this made me happy.

This  picture, by the way, is of the main square in the old town part of Sarajevo.  There is a perpetual flock of pigeons in the square at all times that primarily waddles around looking for food by this point, giving a Moses parting the Red Sea feeling to walking across the square.  I also spent a very happy few minutes experimenting with herding pigeons once I noticed you could by just walking the right way, which was entertaining to me but confusing to those people-watching in the surrounding cafes.

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A view of the main mosque in Sarajevo at night- I didn’t go in though because you needed a headscarf, an item I didn’t particularly have on me.  It is worth noting though that the Bosniaks practice a very tame version of Islam compared to the stereotype in the Western media- it’s a rarity rather than a rule for a woman to cover herself up, for example, and drinking alcohol doesn’t raise too many eyebrows (though there are definitely more cafes than bars for a city this size).  In fact, one of the most popular t-shirts the vendors sell around here is one saying “I’m Muslim- don’t panic!”

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A view of Sarajevo from an old lookout above the city- gorgeous! You know how usually when you visit a city you can say it reminds you of another one geographically?  I like Sarajevo because it doesn’t remind me of any other city I’ve ever visited because it”s nestled in the valley of the hills and the river doesn’t dominate the view in any way.  No really, I sat here for awhile thinking “Pittsburgh? no river, Wellington? no ocean” and on and on like that.  And then for fun I counted how many minaret towers there were compared to church ones- final verdict was 24 minarets and 5 churches that I could see.  Definitely an interesting place.

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I could make an argument that this is the location of the most important event in modern history.  This is, ladies and gents, the Latin Bridge, and that building on the corner is the assassination spot of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 by Serbian nationals. (“Not the first time they caused trouble in Sarajevo,” a Bosniak told me darkly.) Now had he not been murdered here there probably would have been some other event that would have catalyzed World War I to happen, but this is where the stage was set.

The building on the corner, by the way, has now been turned into a little museum commemorating the event where you can see the guns used in the assassination and things like that.  Of course they only had so much material to use, so most of the museum is actually dedicated to life in Sarajevo at the turn of the century where you are invited to look at scintillating objects such as an early 20th century beer bottle or a singing club’s membership roster.  I’d complain longer but it was 2 Marks to get in (fixed 2:1 with the Euro) so I won’t.

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A typical view of a street in the old part of Sarajevo by the way- most of the shops cater to tourists (usually domestic over international ones still) but Sarajevo was always a center for goldsmiths and metal workers and the like, meaning shop after shop will be filled with beautiful hand-engraved silver tea sets and the like.  You know they’re handmade by the simple fact that you are greeted with the sound of hammering and chiseling as the engravers work.

On another note, though, I am not entirely certain how these engravers and jewelers support themselves.  I mean, who buys this stuff anyway?  Any survey o the street quickly reveals that most Bosnians seem to spend their day sitting with their friends drinking coffee, conceivably only working when they switch who gets the waiter job, and tourism really hasn’t taken off in a big way yet.  A mystery..

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The outside of my favorite kind of store, in theory an antique store but in practice where you can pick up any kind of military gear from the past 75 years.  Seriously, you poke through one of these stores and find yourself mulling over a Yugoslav-issue gas mask or a Nazi armband or Soviet war medals and the like… I confess I was tempted to purchase something, but the Nazi stuff is undoubtedly illegal in many countries I will visit and my mom would be very upset if I showed up with an old red star pin.  So my BiH souvenier ended up being a pair of Bosnian-style earrings instead.

image699And I am completely and utterly incapable of finishing up a post about Sarajevo without ranting about how good the food is here.  It definitely has some Middle Eastern influence and falls into the “meat and starch” variety of cuisine, but still has similarities to Hungarian cuisine such as the belief that everything is better when you dump huge quantities of sour cream on it (they’re right, by the way).  The above is meat dumplings in tomato sauce with sour cream- soooo good!

And that is Sarajevo.  I realize you are all reading this now and thinking “hello, war? are you going to talk about that?” but that deserves a post in itself.