Bosnia & Hercegovina - The Potato Chick

Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina

In a sentence...a picturesque town which was just as thought-provoking as Sarajevo.

Food we loved...yummy garlicky grilled chicken.

We came to Mostar for its bridge but left with so much more.

Mostar’s bridge is a reconstruction of a 16th-century Ottoman bridge that crosses the river Neretva and connects two parts of the old town. It was destroyed in November 1993 by Croat forces during the Balkans conflict. After the war, the bridge was reconstructed using some of the original stone recovered from the bottom of the river and the rebuilt bridge opened in July 2004. It is traditional for the young men of the town to jump off the bridge into the freezing cold (and very shallow) waters below. For a price, crazy tourists can do the same thing. Mostar was catapulted into Australian lounge rooms when Hamish and Andy jumped off the bridge a few years ago.

Having obtained promises from Nick that he would not be attempting any stunt work in Mostar we boarded a smoke-filled train for  the short but spectacular trip from Sarajevo (the Balkans countryside just keeps getting better and better).

We were greeted at the station by the slightly maniacal Zika from Hostel Nina. Once we were settled in he quickly moved into sales mode, telling us about the tours and transfers he offered. For added authenticity, he mentioned on several occasions that he had been “shot twice” during the Balkans conflict. Suckers that we are we signed up for the “war tour” for the next day. We customised it to add a trip to a waterfall and an old Ottoman town. Activities sorted, we headed into the town to watch some bridge-jumping. The locals jump up to 30 times per day, only jumping once they have collected enough money from tourists. Startled by a pair of bright yellow speedos at eye level on the bridge’s railing I very quickly handed over all our coins to fund a jump or two.

Mostar differs to Sarajevo in that most of the fighting that took place there was between the Bosniaks and the Croats (rather than the Serbs). Regardless of who was fighting the results were the same – mass destruction and pointless bloodshed. Half of Zika’s high school class died. Hatred still simmers just below the surface and there is a distinct divide between the Croat side of town and the Bosniak side of town. I found this incredibly sad.

Zika’s war tour ended up being fantastic and it was great to get another firsthand account from someone who survived the war. Zika took us to many interesting places including a bunker, the over-flowing cemetery and the sniper tower. The sniper tower used to be a bank but, at eight floors high, it was used during the war by the Serb and Croat snipers. Abandoned and derelict, it now hovers over the city as a permanent  (and chilling) reminder of the suffering that the Bosniaks endured. Zika explained that the people of Mostar cannot agree what to do with the building. The Bosniaks want it converted into a memorial of all those who were killed while the Croats want to turn it into office space. We couldn’t go inside while on the tour but Nick and Tas returned later and found plenty of shells lying around.

We also visited a residential building used during the war by both Bosniak and Croat forces. The frontline was so close that they were literally fighting side by side. We were able to walk through the first level of the building which was full of rubbish and broken glass with the ceiling caving in. It was pretty disturbing to see that people were living on the third level of the same building. Meanwhile, next door was a building which had been restored but which was sitting empty because its owners can’t be found.

The most intriguing place Zika took us to did not relate to the war at all but, rather, to former Yugoslavia’s period of Communism. Hidden behind some dodgy camouflage was a huge underground nuclear shelter built to store planes and to house up to 30 VIP families in the event of the Cold War flaring up into a full blown nuclear war.  We walked the length of the shelter and it was about 500 metres long. It was creepy and quite amazing and made us wonder how many other similar shelters Tito had scattered around the place.

Just like Sarajevo, we left Mostar with plenty to think about. This town was so much more than just a bridge.

Next stop...Prague, Czech Republic.

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Posted 3 October 2014

Sarajevo, Bosnia & Hercegovina

In a sentence...a lovely city with a heart-breaking history.

Food we loved...cevapi – little skinless sausages served with flat bread and kaymak, a delicious cream cheese-like concoction.

Our time in Sarajevo had a little bit of everything – good food, history and musing about the atrocities which humans are capable of.

Sarajevo is a really pretty city with an interesting mix of Austro-Hungarian and Turk Ottoman architecture. The Ottoman part of the town is the cutest and that was where we tended to go to get amazing food. On our first full day we did a free walking tour and learned about Sarajevo’s history including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (which started WW1) and the Sarajevo siege.

Bosnia’s population is made up of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats. The siege of Sarajevo began after Bosnia voted to become independent from Yugoslavia.

Bosnia’s independence was recognised by the rest of the world and, with the support of Serbia, the Bosnian Serbs (who had boycotted the vote) moved to occupy territory they wanted to claim as their own. Sarajevo was a part of that territory and it was soon virtually completely surrounded. For almost 4 years the Bosniaks attempted to go about their daily lives while being constantly shelled and with snipers taking pot-shots at them from the mountains. The rest of the world basically left them to their own devices, although the UN controlled the airport and provided some food rations. An arms embargo was instigated which meant the Bosniaks had very limited access to weapons. The Serbs, meanwhile, used the artillery of the Yugoslavian army. It was a classic David and Goliath situation.

Estimates vary but somewhere between 11,000 and 14,000 Sarajevans were killed during the siege including 1600 children. The siege ended with a “peace” agreement whereby the Bosniaks ended up with 51% of the territory of Bosnia and the Serbs with 49%. Considering the Serbs held approximately 17% during the conflict the agreement was a pretty good outcome for them. The Serb territory is known as the Republic of Srpska and is now an autonomous region of Bosnia.

Our guide, Neno, was exactly the same age as us and lived through the siege. It’s so strange to think that while I was feeling excited about getting my pen licence and spelling the word YUGOSLAVIA correctly during a game of Buzz he was being educated in a basement and surviving on UN rations of tinned beef and mackerel.

With our minds overwhelmed with information, we ventured to the airport for a joyful reunion with Tas. There were hugs...there were kisses...and that was just between Nick and Tas.

We had a fabulous evening sampling the local beers and eating a copious amount of food. The Ottoman influence certainly makes for plenty of deliciousness.

The next day we ventured to the National Museum to get some culture. There were plenty of interesting exhibits including one which detailed the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and a photography exhibition which showed Sarajevo’s buildings just after the siege ended and then again in 2011. The city was decimated by the time the siege ended and the restoration that has occurred is quite amazing.

In the afternoon we fuelled ourselves with waffles and visited the tunnel built from the Bosniak territory into Sarajevo to allow the supply of black market weapons (and some food). Prior to the construction of the tunnel, people used to risk their lives running in the open. Neno told us about the mother of one of his friends who died trying to get some extra food for her family.

Not satisfied with the level of suffering we had encountered so far, we headed to a photography exhibition which detailed the massacre which took place at Srebrenica. I could write an entire post just about this massacre but basically it was the killing of more than 8000 Bosniak boys and men after 25,000 to 30,000 of the women, children and elderly in the town were forcibly transferred from the area. A 400-strong contingent of Dutch peacekeepers did not prevent the town’s capture or the subsequent massacre.

By the end of the day I wasn’t sure if I could even stomach dinner but, of course, I pushed through.

We left Sarajevo with plenty to think about and an even greater love for the beautiful Balkans.

Next stop...Mostar, Bosnia & Hercegovina.

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Posted 26 September 2014
Apologies for the sombre tone (and length!) of this post but Sarajevo really was one of the most thought provoking stops of our trip.

Visegrad, Bosnia & Hercegovina

In a sentence... Visegrad was a short but lovely one night stop-over en route to Sarajevo. We were again blown away by the natural beauty of the Balkans as we sipped beer and cider while cruising down the river.

Food we loved... burek – some sort of mystery meat wrapped in flaky melt-in-your mouth pastry served piping hot from the bakery.

Next stop...Sarajevo, Bosnia & Hercegovina.

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Posted 17 September 2014