Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Best of BOSNIA: A troubled, yet captivating land.

I’ll begin by addressing the huge elephant in the room – Bosnia has not upheld the best reputation in recent decades.  Whenever you hear the country’s name mentioned in the media, it’s usually for the wrong reasons.  And it’s quite safe to say that it’s not your typical destination for British jetsetters.  Despite all this, I’d been intrigued by the country for a while and jumped at the opportunity to visit! 

Whilst I’d usually try to avoid spouting facts and figures in these articles, I think it’d be difficult to fully understand Bosnia without briefly touching on its rather bumpy history.  Condensed down, the country’s timeline looks something like this: Ottoman Empire; Austro-Hungarian rule; world wars; Yugoslav communism; declaration of independence; Bosnian War; post-war recovery.  

Modern-day Bosnia is made up of three major people groups - the Muslim Bosniaks, the Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croats.  Tensions between these groups culminated in the brutal war of the 1990s, which tragically saw the loss of 101, 000 lives – mainly civilians.  Whilst fighting broke out in all corners of the country, the capital Sarajevo endured the longest siege in modern history - residents were effectively trapped in the city for a terrifying 1425 days, whilst Serb forces would relentlessly and indiscriminately fire artillery from surrounding hills. 

War damage near Mostar

Unsurprisingly, reminders of war are everywhere.  Travelling in Bosnia can be emotionally draining, but massively insightful.  I found myself becoming so appreciative of my comparatively peaceful life when speaking to individuals, of my own age, who’d lived through this sheer terror and come out the other end. 

A lot of the buildings in central Sarajevo have been repaired or replaced since the end of the war, but you don’t have to venture far from the centre before bullet holes in walls become the norm.  Every other building is scarred to varying extents – it’s really quite haunting.  War cemeteries are so extensive that they form white blankets across the hillsides.  In Mostar, the damage is only more blatant; collapsed buildings simply blend into the now thriving streets.

Šehidsko War Cemetery - Sarajevo

I started my journey in the country’s capital – Sarajevo.  If there’s any place in the world where east and west collide, it would have to be Sarajevo.  It really is a place where cultures fuse together, in the most intriguing way.  The city is a metaphorical ‘onion’, formed from three very distinct ‘layers’ radiating outwards from a very picturesque historic centre.  Each of these layers is fascinating its own right, each depicting its own chapter of Bosnian history.

The city’s historic core – known as Baščaršija - is thankfully much easier to explore than it is to pronounce!  This small tangle of Ottoman-era lanes and alleys is where most of Sarajevo’s ‘must-see’ sights can be found. It’s like a mini, less hectic İstanbul. Don’t miss the stunning Gazi Husrev-beg mosque, the old clock tower, the bezistan covered markets and the Morića Han caravanserai.  With towering minarets, old stone buildings and colourful bazaars, this is an enchanting district to explore.  There’s a good chance you’ll hear the Muslim call to prayer, which echoes through streets five times a day.  It’s a truly beautiful and magical experience.

Baščaršija - Sarajevo

Traditional copperware in Baščaršija - Sarajevo

Baščaršija - Sarajevo

Perhaps the most famous sight in the old town is the Latin Bridge.  The assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand took place beside this bridge in 1914, sparking World War I.  A plaque marks the exact spot (which is actually on the adjacent street Zelenih Beretki, not on the bridge itself). 

Latin Bridge - Sarajevo

Walking outwards from the old town, you’ll reach the next ‘layer’ of Sarajevo.  This is the Austro-Hungarian district.  In direct contrast with Baščaršija’s quaint, olde-worlde atmosphere, this part of town is bold and modern.  Wide European-style boulevards replace narrow lanes and churches replace mosques.  The intersection of the two districts is abrupt and quite bizarre; it’s like walking from İstanbul to Vienna along the same street!

Continuing outwards along the main street (it may be an idea to hop on a tram at this stage), you’ll reach the outermost ‘layer’ of the city.  This is the communist-era ‘grey belt’ which developed during the Yugoslav years.  It’s essentially an endless corridor of brutalist grey-concrete apartment blocks (if you’ve visited any of the Eastern bloc countries, you’ll know what I mean).  It’s visually unattractive, but offers an insight into an authentic Bosnian neighbourhood. 

Communist-era cityscape - Sarajevo

Sarajevo is quite unlike any city I’ve ever seen.  The mix of mosques, catholic and orthodox churches and even synagogues makes the place unique.  Scarred deeply by war and suffering, the resilience and ‘lust for life’ of locals is hugely admirable.

My second stop was the western city of Mostar.  I didn’t have as much time here as I’d have hoped, but I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to visit and managed to do a whirlwind tour!  The journey from Sarajevo carves its way through a gorge of the Dinaric Alps - it’s a very pretty ride.  I really loved Mostar, right from the moment I stepped off the bus.  The vibe here was so upbeat - perhaps it was the sunny weather - I can’t quite put my finger on it!  Despite its troubled past, Mostar has a real vibrancy.  It’s such a charming place to explore.  The historic centre is idyllic, with its rustic Ottoman-era architecture and towering minarets.  The city is by no means ‘touristy’, but the people here seemed to be much more accustomed to the sight of backpackers, probably because of it’s proximity to the Croatian border. 

Mostar’s star attraction is its world-famous Ottoman bridge – Stari Most.  Asides from being very pretty to look at, this bridge is so symbolic. It physically and metaphorically bridges the gap between the Muslim and Christian 'worlds'. It was deliberately destroyed by artillery fire in 1993, but rebuilt as an exact replica in 2004.

Mostar is beautiful

Both Sarajevo and Mostar are small cities, which can be covered easily by foot over the course of a few days.  There’s a small, but well-established backpacking scene in Sarajevo and a bigger scene in Mostar - you’ll have no problem meeting like-minded travellers in either place.  There are some excellent free walking tours in both cities.  The country is very affordable - expect to pay 15-18 BAM a night in a hostel dorm (1 BAM = £0.45 GBP at the time of writing) or around 45 BAM for a budget hotel.  Food is very cheap by western standards – expect to pay between 10 and 15 BAM for a local Bosnian dish in a mid-range restaurant.  Alcohol is widely available and extremely cheap – a beer should cost around 2.50 BAM. 
Bosnian polenta in yoghurt sauce

I'll never forget the time I spent in Bosnia.  It's had such a profound impact on me - more so than most places I've visited.  It was a huge learning experience.  It's a captivating and intriguing land of colliding cultures, beautiful architecture and rugged natural beauty, but it’s also troubled and scarred, picking up the pieces of brutal conflict.  The atrocities the Bosnians endured during the 1990s are on a scale that my mind is unable to comprehend.  I hope with all my heart that this country's future is brighter than its past.

Thanks for reading!

Elis Griffiths. x

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