Keeping a Bright Lens, Despite the Scars of War [Bosnia and Herzegovina]

[This is the fourth of a four-part trip recap; Previous Post: Cleansed by the Adriatic Sea and the Calm Coastal Life [Croatia]]

October 29, 2015 – Mostar’s Inner and Outer Beauty

The Croatian-Bosnia border patrol didn’t seem too concerned with migrants. We approached what looked like a lodge, with officers out on foot chatting to the drivers in cars. We pulled up in the muddy area and provided our paperwork, and the lax Bosnian officer directed us forward. We drove through southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, a hilly, mountains and cliff-hanging terrain. The views were absolutely incredible, with rocky, tree-covered mountains and colorful valleys.

Our next destination was Blagaj-Tekija near Buna, where the Dervish House sits at the bottom of a giant cliff and a spring gushes to form the Buna River. The monastery was built in the Ottoman Empire and is a place where dervishes perform special rituals. If you’re not familiar, dervishes are part of the Muslim Sufi faith who are known for their extreme poverty and austerity.

Our handy Garmin got us to the general region, however, it was directing us up a hill with dirt ruts. It didn’t seem right, so we turned around and used our phones to direct us to Blagaj. On our alternative route, we drove past abandoned buildings with ammo holes in them. This was the first indication of a war-torn region.

We parked our Opal Astra and literally ran down a semi-steep hill to Tekija to quickly snap some pictures. We were moving quickly because we were a bit behind schedule in order to meet our Airbnb host in Mostar. Upon arriving, you’re able to take a tour of the monastery and cross the Leho bridge or Karađoz-beg bridge in order to get close to the cliff. The site was absolutely stunning with the backdrop of autumn colors, the sparkling green river and the bright white monastery. At this time of year, there weren’t many people out and about, which was nice to be able to take great photos.

After running back up the hill to our car, we jetted off toward Mostar, the site of our next stay. Mostar is one of the most important and iconic cities in the Herzegovina region. Home to about 115,000 people, the city is most known for its Old Bridge and layout amongst the Nevetra River. It was a little hard to find parking on the skinny stone streets of the town. The roads were not marked with one-way or two-way signs, so we did a bit of improvising when driving down streets.

Our Airbnb stay was called, “The Crooked House,” a neat 3-story skinny building by the Old Bridge and river. The top floor had two beds and a balcony, the middle floor had two more beds and a small kitchen, and the bottom floor was the restroom and shower. As a giant 6’5″ being, I was on constant watch for low-hanging beams. A spiral staircase connected all the floors.

The rest of the day, we shopped at a bunch of stores in the Old City, a beautiful stone-street market with a variety of art, copper, textile, rug and souvenir options. These shops are part of the Turkish bazaar. A lot of the stores displayed memorabilia from the Yugoslav Wars; I purchased a bullet shell that had been artistically engraved with floral design and the word, “Mostar.” All of the designs that they engrave on the bullets are from tombstones of those who lost their lives. Heart-warming.

The view of Stari Most (the Old Bridge) is absolutely incredible. I remembered seeing it in photos online before our trip, and I never believed it would look so stunning in person. The city feels like a fairytale, like you’re living in the Ottoman era. The bridge itself is similar to a lot of bridges in Bosnia, meeting at a point in its center, then slanting down. Over the years, the stones have become polished by foot traffic, making it super slick to walk on since it’s pretty steep. They have added extra raised stones so you can avoid slipping. There is a common tradition that a group of men jump off this bridge in wetsuits; we were lucky to be there when a new jumper was testing his luck. We were so nervous for him (and the water had to be cold), but all worked out.

Throughout Mostar, it was extremely evident that it had gone through hardship in the Yugoslav Wars. Many of the buildings have pretty good size holes from bullets and ammo adorning their walls. The locals see it as a reminder of what happened and how far they’ve come since. Mostar (and this region in particular) is quite unique. The makeup of the population is split into thirds: 1/3 Bosniaks, 1/3 Croats and 1/3 Serbs. It still holds the diversity that essentially caused ethnic tension in the Yugoslav Wars. 1993 was particularly hard on Mostar, as Croat forces had a year-long siege of the city, destroying most of the architecture (including the bridge) and expelling Bosniaks from their homes.

Walking those stone streets made us a bit hungry and anxious to test out the food. We ate near our Airbnb stay at a traditional Bosnian restaurant. We heard a lot about traditional Bosnian coffee, so we ordered a set – it comes with coffee heated up in one cup (including grounds at the bottom) and small cups for sipping. It was delicious! Another traditional dish is cevapi, small seasoned skinless sausages housed within a pita. It is served with fries and a special sauce. Absolutely incredible, and I highly recommend!

As it began to get dark, we walked around the city a bit more. The holes in the sides of the buildings began to feel a bit more solemn. We approached a cemetery near the Karagöz Bey Mosque, where bright white stones peaked through the darkness. Robyn and I began walking through the cemetery and unintentionally separated to enjoy the silence. I had never before been in a cemetery where everyone’s deceased year was the same: 1993. The Crescent Moon was engraved on each stone, each Muslim life that was taken during the Bosnian War. I’d see middle-age folks, elderly, but most difficult, young children, who had died in the war. It was difficult to walk this cemetery, and at one point, I teared up as I neared a fountain commemorating those who had died. I sat there for a while, until the call to prayer sounded from the mosque.

The people in the city were so nice and welcoming. They looked weathered, dark-featured, harsh at times. You can tell that there’s a lingering effect of the war, but like several signs say, “Don’t Forget 1993.” We walked more of the city that night and smiled when we saw “Refugees Welcome” signs on poles throughout the residential neighborhoods (welcoming those migrating from Syria and nearby regions). We stopped at a bar for multiple Cuba Libres and cigarettes until heading home to get ready for the next day of travel.

October 30, 2015 – Arriving in Sarajevo, the Melting Pot of the Balkans

The next day was sunnier, so I went back to a few photo vantage points I had scoped out the previous day. I wanted to make another purchase at one of the antique stores, so I bought an old copper wine vase recovered from the war that was engraved with intricate design. After making a quick round of the bazaar, we packed up and took off in our car. It was my turn to drive.

Our navigation friend Garmin helped instruct me to leave the city and head east. It was taking us a strange way through Mostar, but we trusted it. I turned left down an alley. It seemed fine for a bit, but then it became really steep and packed with cars. Garmin kept telling me to go forward, only to find out, it was trying to tell me to drive up stone stairs! My stress level was at an all-time high, but Robyn and I just had to stop a moment and laugh out loud. The bad thing was, I had to drive in reverse ALL THE WAY DOWN the alley I had just driven. It was absolutely nuts, but I guess my 18 years on the farm came in handy. We eventually used our phones to navigate out the city and into the beautiful countryside of Bosnia. We stopped along the road at a truck stop for coffee and snacks. The men did not speak English. It was a bit grungy and seemed a bit like a “man’s stop,” with calendars of naked woman on the walls (from years ago, nonetheless.)

Our next destination was Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We made the decision to drop off our rental car at the airport a few days early so that we wouldn’t have the hassle of parking and scrambling the day of our departure. We took a cab from the airport to the city to meet our Airbnb hostess, a super nice lady who was so helpful giving us ideas of things to see in the city.

The city looked a bit more urban than Mostar, with administrative buildings and an attempt at a shopping center. An above ground train runs through the city. The larger cities in Western Europe first tested train cars in Sarajevo to see their reception and to get out the kinks before installing them in their own countries. Sad, but true, Sarajevo still uses these trains today. A variety of religious buildings line the skyline of Sarajevo, including churches, mosques and cathedrals. Sarajevo is known as being a melting pot of religions and cultures.

In the afternoon, we explored the Baščaršija, the city old Turkish bazaar and cultural center. There were alleys and alleys of shops, including copper work, textiles, restaurants, hookah lounges, jewelry, rugs, and bakeries. There’s a fountain at the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque that I drank from and washed my skin. According to legend, if you drink from this fountain, you’ll return and find your significant other. Good luck legend gods!

We again ate traditional Bosnian food (I had cevapi, of course). Later that night, we felt like enjoying some time with the locals, so we went to a hookah lounge and smoked some tangerine flavored tobacco. We were excited to get back to our Airbnb stay, which was quite modern and in a perfect spot in the city next to Veliki Park. This place had some pretty good shower water pressure, one of the top amenities in life.

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October 31, 2015 – Understanding Sarajevo’s Hardships During the War

One of our hostess’s recommendations was to take a free walking tour in the morning, which was perfect for us because we didn’t have a lot of time here and we wanted to hear about the history of Sarajevo told by a local. We met at a central location with a bunch of other tourists. Our guide was a 30-year-old Bosnian who took us to some hidden gems in the city.

First off, she described “Sarajevo Roses.” Throughout the city, you’ll see small craters in concrete, which were created by the mortar shell explosions during the war. The city decided to leave them and fill them with red resin to commemorate a life that was lost as a result of the bomb. Due to their unique shape, they were dubbed the Sarajevo Roses. Today, the red resin roses are disappearing as the city replaces concrete, however, they try to leave the structure of the divot in place.

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She spoke of her time as a child, which was right in the middle of the Bosnian War. Sarajevo was a central hub for warfare, due it is prominence as the capital city. In good spirits, she spoke how they had to run to school before a certain time because they knew “the Serbs wouldn’t wake up and bomb them before then.” She also spoke of the food quality during that time. Most of the markets were running low on supplies, so the United Nations supplied Sarajevo with food during the war. She mentioned that the supplied aid food was so terrible, even times where maggots would be all over the food. They truly believe the aid was leftover from WWII. Speaking of markets, she took us to the Sarajevo Markale, an open-air marketplace where people sell fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, sundries, etc. The location is important because it was the site of two massive mortar shell attacks in 1994 and 1995. Today, the market is vibrant and completely full of items. As a backdrop, the city has a wall commemorating those whose lives were lost in the marketplace attacks.

As previously mentioned, you can see many religious establishments in the city. The guide took us to a square next to the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral where a bunch of old men were playing life-size chess on the pavement. They would laugh, grunt, yell, chant. Nothing like retirement and chess on the plaza! The guide pointed out several architectural differences between the churches, the practical Yugoslav schools and statues.

To round out the tour, she took us to the only synagogue in the city, which is open for one day a year (there are only 600 Jews in Sarajevo). Nearby is the River Miljacka, a straight river that is surrounded by colorful buildings. The guide told us the story of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on the Latin Bridge by a Serbian National. I can’t remember the full story, but it was fascinating!

We worked up quite an appetite after the tour, so we dined out at an outdoor restaurant, where I had a soothing chicken soup (Bey’s soup) with a Coke. We needed to finalize shopping for our last souvenirs. I purchased an absolutely beautiful silver-lined copper platter with intricate chiseled designs, a traditional Bosnian coffee set, and a Turkish-style pillowcase. Looking a bit rough from the hookah, the cigs and sleep cycle, we topped it off with some “Rocky” shots of fruit liquor, then walked home for a rest.

That night, we ate at Appetit, a small restaurant where the chef cooks to your dietary needs and preferences. You literally go in and tell them what you are hungry for and they can make anything! What a great concept! I had a beef tenderloin, freshly cut vegetables, a salad, and a Nutella ice cream with berries. The bill comes and it is so cheap compared to what it would be in the U.S. We are always so generous with our tips since the meal prices are so advantageous.

That evening, we wrapped up our souvenirs, packed our bags and prepped for our return flight.

November 1, 2015 – Fulfilled by the Balkans

A cab took us to the airport. The airport is so practical and not busy in Sarajevo, and of course, they have a separate “smoking room.” Of course it was time to ditch the cigs and clean up for American life. Our flight flew through Switzerland and Germany before heading to Chicago.

I can’t say how much I loved this trip, especially Bosnia and Herzegovina. People say to me, “Your idea of a vacation is not a vacation to me.” I get it. I’m not the beach resort type of person (don’t get me wrong, I love a good beach), but I’m more fulfilled by exploring the paths less taken. Even though traveling through places like the Balkans can be stressful and ambiguous, the lessons and perspective I gain from it is invaluable. I came back home feeling relaxed, amazed and more well-rounded. It was the first time witnessing a place so close to the times of war, and I learned so much from the locals in how they reflect and build on those times of tribulation. I hope to visit the region again in my life to see the progress they continue to make and to explore the natural wonders they humbly keep to their own.

-Michael

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