Hey!! I finally found time to put together a blog post about traveling through Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia and Montenegro.
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As has become tradition when I travel to Serbia I arrived late. Not nearly as late as I was when coming by bus in 2005 or by air in 2006 – both of those arrivals occurred at 3am and considerably later than the originally scheduled arrival time, and both of those times Mateja was patiently waiting for me. This year my train pulled into Belgrade's central railway station at 10:30pm, only two hours behind the time stamped on my ticket.
Upon arrival I was greeted by Mateja, his brother Andreja and their friend Maja (FYI – in the Yugoslav language the letter “J” is pronounced something like the English letter “Y”). It was a relief to see them and we set to work planning the next week of travel. The leg of the journey from Belgrade, Serbia to my companions' home-town of Nis was to take a 6-day sidetrack through Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia and Montenegro. I was eager to venture back into the parts of Yugoslavia that I hadn't seen since 2005 but was especially grateful to do it with three Serbs. The plan had originally been to head straight to Sarajevo upon my arrival but Mateja, being wise, held off on the purchase of the tickets because of the proclivity for trains to be late in the Balkans. Instead we were to catch the 6:15am bus which left us little time that evening to eat and sleep.
In the morning we headed out of Serbia via Vojvodina – the northern province of Serbia that is comprised of the south Hungarian plain. The Bosnian border is a very dramatic one – the Drina river, which provided the geographic boundary between the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, is flanked on one side by the hills and mountains of Bosnia and on the other by the perfectly flat farmland of north-western Serbia.
After passing across the Drina our progress slowed as our bus navigated the hilly terrain. This was the first time that I had been inside the political entity known as the Republike Srpska which accounts for roughly 49% of the territory of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Both Sarajevo and Mostar lie inside the Federation of Muslims and Croats. It is in the Republike Srpska that one can find the most nationalistic Serbs – not in Serbia proper but in the regions of Bosnia that have a Serbian majority. Similarly, the most nationalistic Croats one is likely to find live in Hercegovina and not in Croatia. It is the Muslims of Bosnia and Hercegovina that tend to be the most liberal, open-minded and friendly.
The bus, coming from Serbia, let us off in the Serb-dominated suburb to the east of Sarajevo's downtown core from which we had to catch a tram back into downtown Sarajevo. By the time we neared the terminus of the tram in central Sarajevo there was hardly room to move inside and the heat was stifling. It was in these close-knit circumstances that Maja committed the first multi-cultural faux pas of our trip in Bosnia by announcing loudly how scary it was to hear the Muslim call to prayer – a comment which drew sudden strained looks from numerous, obviously Muslim, tram passengers. Mateja made quick work to silence Maja before she managed to incite an international incident.
For Mateja, at least, the trip was as much about exploring pieces of his former country, Yugoslavia, from a historical standpoint as it was about relaxing and sight-seeing. I count myself lucky to have been able to be a part of and bear witness to his reaction to these places that I can only experience as a cultural outsider and casual observer. One of the more potent moments was while in the Sarajevo Tunnel which originates in a pock-marked house just south of the Sarajevo airport and was used to ferry food, supplies and weaponry beneath the Bosnian Serb lines in the 1990s. We were unfortunately too late for the tour of the tunnel and museum but when the proprietor (likely a Bosnian Muslim but one can't be sure) heard the Serbian accent of my companions he opened the door of the museum to us and allowed us to see it for ourselves. As we were leaving, Mateja opened the guestbook and wrote “I'm so sorry”. Of course Mateja had nothing to do with the horrors of the 1990s but nationals carry the banners of their most extreme compatriots whether or not they want to and it was a nice gesture.
Later that evening we ate dinner at the Sarajevo brewery. During the war the brewery continued to operate and was a meeting place from time-to-time of multi-ethnic resistance fighters. Some weapons were sneaked into the city under the guise of brewery equipment. The food and beer were fantastic.
When we left the brewery Maja committed her second major faux pas. While posing for a picture in front of the brewery she threw up the hand gesture that represents, in a manner of speaking, the Serbian nation. During the war this became a very politically charged symbol and there are many horrendous photographs of Serbian paramilitary standing over corpses while making the gesture. Mateja and I were horrified and for a second just stared in disbelief before jumping on her. She hadn't been thinking about the potency of the symbol. In fact, prior to this trip Maja had been fairly unaware of the level of atrocity committed in certain corners of former Yugoslavia – especially the siege of Sarajevo.
In Mostar we had what would be the most fun and educational day of our trip. While in Sarajevo we met up with a group of travelers coming from Mostar who just happened to have slept at the same hostel we had a reservation with. They informed us of a not-to-be-missed 13-hour tour of Hercegovina – a triangular region comprising about 1/6 of the landmass of Bosnia and Hercegovina in the south of the country. Not being ones to miss a not-to-be-missed tour we made sure we arrived plenty early from Sarajevo.
After drinking coffee in the hostel, called Majda's Rooms and literally a collection of bedrooms in a Bosniak (Muslim) woman's apartment, a red-faced and exuberant man arrived and immediately started (pleasantly) shouting for everybody to quickly get in his van. This excited man was Bata (a nickname which literally translates to “brother”) and after squeezing 17 foreigners into his van we shot off into the streets of Mostar.
Among our crew of tourists were 20-somethings from the US, Canada, Britain, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and Serbia. Bata was pleasantly surprised to discovered Serbs in our midst and while he potentially toned down rhetoric about Serbs he was refreshingly honest about the war – a major component of the tour. He was also one of the few non-academic individuals that I've ever spoken to who accurately pinpointed the goal of the political leadership in the cruel wars of the 1990s – selfish economic privatization and not, as so many others have ignorantly claimed, the fulfillment of ancient ethnic rivalry and hatred (which didn't, and does not, actually exist).
The tour consisted of parts that elicited emotional responses from sadness and anger to hilarity and excitement. We visited an ancient Hungarian fortress, a holy Dervish (of Whirling Dervish fame) House, Medjugorje (where some Croat children claimed to have seen Virgin Mary in the early '80s and which now houses a catholic Megachurch and looks like it belongs in the American south-west) and an impressive collection of waterfalls. By the end of the day (11:40pm) we were thoroughly exhausted and my impression of what the best tourist experiences can be was forever modified, all for 22 Euros.
The following morning we made a quick tour of the actual town of Mostar and photographed the old bridge, now fairly new following its senseless destruction by the Catholic Croatians in 1993. Mostar was the most heavily bombarded city in former Yugoslavia and the scars are still plainly visible along the front line dividing the Croatian and Muslim parts of the city. In what is undeniably bad taste the Croatians constructed first a massive cross on the hillside overlooking the city and secondly a ridiculously tall tower on a Catholic cathedral (poetic justice – the tower was poorly engineered and is leaning heavily and may collapse).
The trip from Mostar to Dubrovnik is beautiful but due to some strange historical territorial holdings forces you to pass into Croatia, back into Bosnia and Hercegovina and into Croatia one more time. We were greeted by warm temperatures and a sunny sky in Dubrovnik which was in marked contrast to the atypically rainy and cold weather that we experienced while in Bosnia (note: there were torrential rain showers when I was in Sarajevo back in 2005 as well).
After checking into our hostel we walked to the old town, grabbed some food, walked around and toured the city walls. Since the last time I was in Dubrovnik prices have skyrocketed. It is now no different than visiting any sea-side Western European destination – both in terms of the cost of things and in the appearance of the city. It's a beautiful town that has benefited from extensive coverage on European and American tourism television shows and in tourism magazines.
For dinner I had an octopus salad which, much to my chagrin, left me very ill the following morning. We had planned to visit the island of Lapad which is said to have the best beaches in the region (no sandy beaches though, just rocky outcroppings) but food poisoning kept me in bed. Mateja, Andreja and Maja had a good time, though they got thoroughly sunburned. Both times that I have been in Dubrovnik I've suffered from some sort of illness . Hopefully next time I won't have the same problems.
The last day of our trip was marathon bus travel. We caught a bus from Dubrovnik to the Montenegrin town of Herceg Novi at 10:30am which got us to our destination in relative speed and comfort though the border provided a 30 minute hiccup. Upon arrival we quickly ate and purchased tickets for the 1:30pm bus from Herceg Novi to Nis, Serbia.
This was a freakishly slow bus ride. We stopped at every little town and every 40 minutes or so we pulled off on the side of the road to deliver suspicious looking black duffel bags to men in cars on the side of the road. The bus drivers refused to stop for bathroom breaks until they had to use the toilet and we didn't stop for any food until after midnight we arrived at a crappy rest stop somewhere in rural western Serbia. In the end it took 14 hours to travel the 560 kilometers to Nis. I'm glad that I will likely not have to travel like that again for some time, though when heading from Belgrade to Salzburg in a couple weeks I may have a similarly long day of travel.