October 9, 2018

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The travels continue. The Lady Holly and I have made our way through five countries in the past twelve days. That fact still astounds this previously isolated Australian. Back home I could drive all day and only just make it to the other end of the state. But here I can, and did, do a day trip from Austria to Slovakia in less time than it takes me to get to work.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When last we spoke I was in Berlin, digging through its substrate to find hidden treasures. Much has happened since then, and I want to tell you all about it.

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We left Berlin by air, a shaky little budget airline, on a flight in which I read, Holly slept, and a giant sat beside me (or as close to a giant as a six foot something human can be–while I do sometimes wish I were taller I did not envy his height in this instance, my knees mostly fit under the chair in front, which is more than I can say for my giant seatmate). The turbulence and my fear of flying had me grabbing the armrest but the views we came upon, islands and oceans, also had me grabbing my camera (but also still the armrests). We were flying from Germany to Croatia, a short flight time-wise, but a large change in both climate and culture. We left six degrees plus windchill from a country full of beer and bread to land in the sunny Mediterranean where shorts, sunglasses, and cocktails were commonplace.

We were in Split, but we wouldn’t be here for long, spending just one night before a bus would take us across the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina. We will return to Split and so I’ll tell you more about that in just a moment, but, first, Mostar.

Mostar is one of the more important cities in the Herzegovina region, a city of old beauty and recent war. Its history is primarily one of conflict, as it sits between old dividing lines, nationalities, and religions. This conflict, however, mostly stems from the leaders, politicians, and the usual pack of arseholes who are too greedy for power and so ruin things for the rest of us. Its people, or at least the ones we met, primarily want one thing; peace. But we’ll circle back to that in just a moment.

Our first impression of Mostar was unfortunately not a good one. The budget bus line we were travelling with was running late, and so skipped a stop. Our stop. The one we had mapped a course to our accommodation from. Instead the bus dropped us off on the other side of town, where our lack of Bosnian and the drivers lack of English meant we really had no idea exactly where we were. The area was a little run down, and a beggar girl (the only one we saw the whole time it should be noted) greeted us as we stepped off the bus with an outstretched palm.  Like I said, not a great first impression, although, to be fair, few bus stations are. We were tired and lost and unsure of safety. We would later learn that we were never in any danger, Mostar is a remarkably safe city, especially for tourists who are very welcome there, but at this time we just wanted to make it to our accommodation as quickly as possible. There were two obstacles to that, however. The first was that, while I did have a sim card that provided me with 4G in a large number of countries across Europe, Bosnia and Herzegovina was not one of them. WiFi was also not available, at least at the bus station, and so any help from our phones was off the table. The second was that we didn’t have the right currency. Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of the European union, but are a later addition and so haven’t converted their currency to the Euro. Again, we would later learn that plenty of places did accept Euro, but for now we thought we might as well have monopoly money. We shook ourselves out of self pity and went and found an ATM. Now cashed up, the next thing was to find a taxi. We found one, but the guy took a phone call midway through Holly explaining where we were trying to go, and waved us away. Cool. So, it was onto the next one. Again, Holly explained where we were trying to get to, and after the driver conversed with a friend who must have known the roads better than he did, we were on our way. Things were looking up.

Accommodation in Mostar is largely guest houses, and ours did not disappoint. Our host, Nina, was kind and welcoming, with a delicious Eastern European accent that had me wanting to mimic it just to feel the taste of the words on my tongue. I did not, at least not while she was still there. The house was big, we had the entire first floor, which was a two bedroom house in itself, and wonderfully clean after the unfortunate experience with the apartment in Berlin. It was also laughably cheap, considering how nice it was and its great location; we were only a ten minute walk from old town. With our spirits well and truly lifted we decided to waste no time and go check it out.

The wounds and scabs of the recent Croat-Bosniak war were obvious as we walked, present in the form of dilapidated buildings, chipped and broken mortar, and the simple shells of what once were homes.

Around those though, was rebuilding. The war officially ended back in 1994 and while Mostar still hasn’t recovered to what they were previously it’s not for lack of trying. For all the bombings that happened during the war, and there were many, the old town mostly managed to stay clear of it. I say mostly for one very important reason. The bridge. The heart of old town, the heart of Mostar, and a proud feature for the locals, is the Stari Most, which translates, simply, to Old Bridge. They call it how it is in Mostar. They have good reason to be proud of this iconic feature because it really is quite lovely. 

Unfortunately, back in 1993, after standing for four hundred and twenty seven years, it came down. Military forces during the war destroyed it, after first destroying every other bridge in the city. The people were devastated, understandably, and it wasn’t until 2004, after the war had ended, that it was rebuilt, thanks in part to the financial aid of a number of neighbouring countries.

The bridge, however, is just the peak of the enchanting old town, where multi layer, bazaar-laden, cobbled streets are rich with people, riverfront seating, and the smells of spices and cooking. We were quickly caught by the charm of the place. It seemed like another world. Like a little pocket of medieval Arabia. A town from another era, which indeed it was. 

We wandered more than walked until our stomachs told us it was time to find out just what the source of the delicious smells were. Thanks to some of Holly’s research we already had a destination in mind, and, keen to try just about everything on their very tasty sounding menu, ordered the grill platter for two. What the restaurant neglected to mention was that this meal must have been meant for two ogres or bears or anything that can eat more than the average human because the pile of food that came out was certainly more than Holly and I could handle. We did our best, we really did, but it was a mountain of meat, with ponds of various dips and sauces, thick vegetation in the form of fresh vegetables and cheese, and at its base a plate of bread that could have, on its own, feed us both comfortably. It, and I, looked like this:

Food

I would not look like that by the time we were done. I would look bloated and full and like I’d just eaten my weight in meat, which indeed I had. The whole thing cost fifteen euro.

We spent the next few days exploring this broken and beautiful place. We had two guides in this time, one young, born towards the end of the conflict, hopeful and energetic and proud, the other older, having lived through the war, less energetic, with some bitterness, but still proud. This time would prove to be some of the most engaging of our entire trip. While we have visited countries that had experienced wars of their own, never had it been so recent, and, ironically, never had I known so little of it. This had happened in my lifetime. While I had happily been running around in grade two, these people had been running across streets to avoid sprays of bullets, hiding in shelters as bombs fell over head, protecting what they could from a war they didn’t want, didn’t agree with, but that they had found on their doorstep nonetheless.

The heart of the Croat-Bosniak war comes from three nationalist groups coming into power and then using this power to try and gain more power. They used past county lines and religious differences to try and gain territory and dispel people. Concentration camps were set up, families split, people killed; the usual laundry list of atrocities that come from war, and it had happened just over two decades ago on the land we were now walking. Our second guide, the older one, while explaining all this, mentioned in passing that he had been a soldier during it all, by necessity more than choice. He also explained that even though the war was over the effects were still being felt, and that many of his friends had turned to drugs and alcohol after a fragile peace was restored. He told us this not with anger or bitterness, just fact, the same way he pointed at a billboard for the upcoming elections and told us the man on it, the one looking for votes, was a war criminal who had avoided punishment. He spoke a lot that day, and for the most part Holly and I listened. As he talked I got the sense that he had avoided the fate of his friends because he talked, because he had people who listened, even if they were strangers from a foreign land who’d paid for the privilege. His tourism had turned to therapy. I hope he continues to talk. I hope that tourists continue to visit. I hope that war never finds them again, even if the roots of it are already trying to find ground.

There was one other thing, one beautiful and inspiring thing, that both guides told us. It has to do with the people that share Mostar’s borders. People from three lands, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, each with differing religions, Catholic, Muslim, and Christian Orthodox. These differences were the reasons the nationalists used to start their war, and the one they continue to try and use to re-flare it, but separatism is not something felt by the people of Mostar. Quite the opposite. “Unity is the spirit of Mostar” is what both guides told us. That was how they said it, the spirit of Mostar. They said it with pride, they said it with hope, as they explained how before the fighting all these differing parties had lived, worshiped, and even married together, how tolerance and understanding was common in a place that could have instead been a boiling pot.

To say I was humbled by Mostar and its people would be an understatement. We primarily went to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the lovely scenery and pools of turquoise water, and we definitely got that, but we got something else as well. A deeper understanding of the evils of mankind, yes, but also the kindness that often gets overshadowed by it. A kindness that should never be disregarded and never be forgotten.

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I was planning to write more on this leg of the trip but this feels like a nice stopping point, so I’ll save that for next time. Instead, I’ll leave you with some of the scenery I mentioned.

Talk soon,

Damian

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