The first time I became aware of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an actual place was in my early 20s when I was introduced to Medjugorje, a village in the east of the country known for its purported apparitions of Mary. The little knowledge this gave me was of a poor, post-communist country, still recovering from the ravages of war. A brief Google search back then pulled up some pictures of Mostar, which impressed me, but of anything more than that, I had no idea.
Bosnia returned to my consciousness when I made a friend from Croatia who was writing his Master’s thesis about the Bosnian Franciscans and their calls for peace during the war of 1992 – 1995. His passion for the country intrigued me, and as I learned more about it from him, I realised there seemed to be something to the place that brought out the best and the worst of people.
I took the cheap Ryanair flight from Charleroi to Banja Luka which landed after dark on a Friday evening. Banja Luka International Airport is no more than a single building with one runway that services a few flights a week. A shuttle bus waits at the flight times and takes passengers south to the city of Banja Luka. On the shuttle with me were two Flemish Belgian women who were staying at the same hostel as me. We agreed to team up to find our way to the hostel as we didn’t really know how to get there. The shuttle dropped us of in the centre of Banja Luka and we stepped out into the world of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A man who was on the shuttle with us advised us to take a taxi to the hostel because it was too far to walk so he waved one down and organised everything for us. My first taste of Bosnian hospitality and helpfulness. It cost 7 Bosnian Marks, about 3.5 Euros, between the three of us got us to the hostel.
The next morning, the lady at the front desk of the hostel greeted me as I came down stairs. The bar next door served breakfast, but I hadn’t booked this when I made my reservation. No problem in Bosnia. She led me to the bar and asked what I wanted to eat. With my British politeness I fumbled a reply saying whatever was easiest was fine. to which the response was, “Relax, don’t be so intense!” A common refrain in Bosnia, I was to discover.
Having eaten, I set out into the city to explore and was greeted by an Orthodox Cathedral, a communist looking square with concrete buildings and Cyrillic shop signs, and, rising up in the distance, a few minarets on the skyline broke the seeming European facade. Banja Luka, the de facto capital of the Republic of Srpska, is home to an old medieval fortress which is remarkably well preserved, and the beautiful reconstruction of Ferhat Pasha Mosque, a copy of the original which, sadly, was complete destroyed during the Bosnian war.
Let me briefly stop here to say a few things about the war. Bosnia is still framed by the war that happened between ’92 – ’95. And while I think the country is coloured and defined by so much more than this conflict, it is impossible to talk about Bosnia and not mention it. The war was a result of nationalist tensions during the breakup of Yugoslavia. After, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from the Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina followed suit which angered the Serbian leadership who claimed ethnic Serbs in Bosnia would be in danger. In a nutshell, these tensions spiralled into the conflict which ravaged the country for 4 years. I would encourage you to do some research on the war with the understanding that it was a complex situation and it is difficult to get impartial accounts about it, especially since it is still very fresh in the minds of people in Bosnia. It was a brutal and soul crushing war that has left the country with an underlying sense of pain, which is present on the faces of people old enough to remember. With that said, let me say that Bosnians are some of the warmest, most welcoming and hospitable people I have encountered. Something that struck me is how they so desperately want you to enjoy your time in the country. People happily go out of their way to help, and they enjoy doing it. (For more information on the war I’d recommend the BBC documentary “The Death of Yugoslavia” which is available on Youtube)
I arrived in Sarajevo on the Saturday evening of the 6th of April, Sarajevo day, the day the city was liberated from the Nazis in 1945. Welcomed by my friend Goran, our first stop was a Ćevabdžinica near the station where we ate a typical Bosnian Ćevapi, a pita bread filled with meat pieces, a kind of cream cheese, and onion. We wandered through the city centre by night and had a beer in Baščaršija, the old Ottoman era district. At night, the tourist shops are closed and there are fewer people on the street, which really gives this segment of the city a magical feel. Old trams trundle along a ring route around the city and they come fairly regularly. Beware of the ticket control operators who skulk around the stations and pounce on anyone that gives a whiff of being foreign. This happened to me on my first day when I rode the tram without a ticket, and set me back 13 Euros. Not such a bad fine, but not a pleasant experience.
In Sarajevo, I was staying with my friend, Goran, who studies there. I met up with our mutual friend who joined us from Israel, Orian. She declared her love for Sarajevo the moment we saw each other in the old square, Seblij. She then proceeded to follow, in hot pursuit, a man carrying a tray of kanafeh which she insisted we needed to try. We didn’t try it. But we did make some new friends who she had asked where we could find the best kanafeh in town.
As Goran, explained, Sarajevo is a city of layers and contrasts. The first layer is the Ottoman era district which dominates the north part of the city centre. Old mosques, and Turkish style shops, strikes one as odd a European city. The next layer is the Austro-Hungarian architecture which is scattered around the city centre. A remnant of the Austro-Hungarian empire which encompassed Bosnia and parts of Montenegro in the south. The third layer is the socialist layer, clearly dominating the skyline with its stark concrete block apartments which all look the same. The final layer is the modern layer, built with money invested from the UAE and Turkey, modern skyscrapers stick out awkwardly from this eclectic mix of architecture. As you walk through the city, you’ll notice the scars of the war on the faces of the buildings, as well as on the pavement where fragmentary grenades exploded, cutting fractal patterns into the concrete around there epicentre. We noted that it was important that people don’t forget the war, but Goran, who has Bosnian heritage, felt that people also needed to deal with their pain and move forward. A first step, he felt, would be repairing some of the damage.
One gets the sense that you’ve gone back in time in Sarajevo. You can smoke in all the cafés and bars, the trams are slow and clunky, and the city has none of the modern slickness of a western European city. And that is a large part of its charm.
With Orian, I visited some of the Jewish sites in the city. The Museum of Jews in Sarajevo, and the Jewish cemetery on the hill overlooking the city. Before the war, one of the distinguishing elements of Sarajevo was its religious diversity. Orthodox and Catholic Christians lived side by side with Muslims and Jews. Sadly, the war tore this diversity apart as religion was linked to nationalist identity. I stopped by The Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide in the city centre. A well put together display, the museum gives you a glimpse into the horrors of the war. That being said, it is quite a lot to take in and very heavy.
Thursday was our last day, so Orian and I took the bus to Mostar. Winding through stunning, sheer, rocky mountains, the bus passes azure glacial lakes which intertwine and flow on towards Mostar. The old city of Mostar has a mystical aura to it, mostly due to the mesmerizingly blue river which flows through it. The iconic Mostar bridge acts like a central force which the city revolves around. This bridge, which stood since the 16th century, was blown to pieces by Croat forces during the war in an act of deliberate cultural warfare. The destruction was ordered by Slobodan Praljak who responded to international outcry that they would build “an even older bridge”. It was reconstructed 2004 through the help of international donors and serves as a bitter-sweet reminder of the fragility of history. Mostar is, unfortunately, very touristy, with locals trying to take advantage as much as they can of the foreigners who stream through the town everyday. One cannot blame them, but the old city is hidden behind a superficial layer of tourist targeted enterprise. I found it interesting that this city has such a mystical feeling to it and just near by are the pilgrimage sites of Medjugorje to the West and Blagaj, an old Sufi monastery, to the South. Something in that region inspires people to religion, it seems. Orian and I hitchhiked to Jablanica from Mostar on our way back to Sarajevo which allowed us a more local glimpse into life in Bosnia. In Jablanica, after encountering a few rude individuals we were warmly received by an owner of a bakery who gave us some delicious fresh bread for the rest of our bus trip back to Sarajevo.
The next day we all set off on our various individual missions. Goran had a presentation for his course that day, and Orian was catching a bus to Belgrade. I hopped on the train to Banja Luka which slowly makes its way through beautiful mountainous countryside. I flew back to Brussels-Charleroi that evening and, thanks to a Ryanair delay, ended up missing the final train back to Leuven. After two men tried to steal my bag at Brussels-Midi at 1:00am I decided that I’d cut my losses and take a taxi home.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a wonderful place, with warm, beautiful people. A trip there should be one of openness to the history and the present. As such, it can only be a journey of beauty and pain for the uninitiated. An “off the grid” tourist destination, it’s worth going there to support the economy and to get a glimpse into a somewhat forgotten region of Europe. The best way to experience Bosnia is to go with the flow, things operate on their own time there, and that’s part of its charm. Hvala lijepo, Bosnia!