Bosnia and Croatia
THE term ‘melting pot’ is overused when describing places, both in terms of history and culture, but it is hard to avoid when talking about the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.
At various times of day the sound of muezzins calling prayers are broadcast from mosques scattered throughout the city while many women wear hijabs.
In the centre is a Turkish quarter where thick, tarry coffee and mint tea are served in cafes decked out with ornate carpets, yet a walk along the street will bring you into an area of classical Eastern European and modern architecture with an Orthodox and Catholic church and a synagogue.
In some ways Bosnia is a bit like Northern Ireland with deep sectarian divisions but with a three-way split rather than two – incorporating Bosnian Muslims, Croatian Catholics and Serbian Orthodox Christians. The comparison even comes down to flying flags to show whose territory you are in.
Even though my passport was stamped with an exit visa from Serbia and, a few minutes later after crossing a bridge, an entrance visa into Bosnia, the Serbian flag could still be seen flying from houses and official buildings while many signs were written using the Cyrillic alphabet, the Roman equivalent often spray-painted out.
Most of the stunningly beautiful Bosnian mountainous countryside we passed through on our way from the Serbian border to Sarajevo lay in Republika Srpska, a region dominated by ethnic Serbs who are reluctant citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, although their political representatives now participate in the government.
A bend on a mountain road brought our bus into a long valley in which the city of Sarajevo sprawled and it was from these hills that just 15 years ago Bosnian Serb snipers shot at passersby and shelled their homes. The siege lasted for four years and claimed thousands of lives.
The images from the siege dominated news headlines and ultimately ensured the intervention of the UN and various peace accords. Since then Bosnia has worked hard to rebuild itself, although there are still signs of destruction everywhere you look with many buildings pockmarked where they were hit by shells and bullets.
Many of the news reports were filed from the iconic Holiday Inn Hotel, located on a street once known as sniper alley, where the western media was based in the rooms facing away from the hills. You can also visit the tunnel that runs under Sarajevo’s airport which was the only way in and out of the city during the 1992 to 1996 siege.
Sarajevo is also famous for an event that could ultimately be said to have defined the history of Europe in the 20th century.
Just down the hill from the pension where we stayed was The Latin Bridge from where an assassin stepped forward and shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in 1914 – an event which popular history pinpoints as the spark for the First World War.
There is a museum just across the road from the bridge with a film reconstruction of the assassination and artifacts from 1914, including the assassin’s pistol.
Further down the same street brings you to the Turkish Quarter, a maze of pedestrianised alleys filled with craft shops, coffee houses, restaurants and a mosque. You can spend hours meandering around and just when you think you have seen everything take a wrong turn and find a whole new unexplored area.
From Sarajvo we took a four-hour bus journey through lush green countryside and fast-flowing rivers to Mostar, a town that was also badly damaged during the Bosnian wars.
Mostar is famous for the 400-year old bridge which collapsed into the river below after a constant barrage of shelling in 1996. A museum beside the bridge has a film loop of footage showing how the centre of Mostar was reduced to a pile of smouldering rubble.
Since then the historic centre, including the bridge, has been more or less restored but a couple of streets away the shells of buildings – and a Muslim graveyeard where hundreds of graves carry dates in July and August 1996 – are testament to the ethnic violence.
Mostar is now a major tourism draw with bus loads of people coming from the Bosnian pilgrimage town of Medjugorje and the Adriatic coastal resorts in neighbouring Croatia to bustle around its cobbled streets and watch divers jump from the bridge into the river below.
After a couple of nights in Mostar, one would have been enough, we undertook our final bus trip of our Balkan adventure, crossing another international border into Croatia.
Dubrovnik is a walled town, with marble streets and intricately carved edifaces, that juts out in to the Adriatic.
As we came in to Dubrovnik we saw a couple of huge cruise liners docked by the bus station whose passengers spilled into the town for a few hours before being ferried off to Venice, Montenegro or one of the Greek islands.
Getting up early is the best way to enjoy a quiet stroll along Dubrovnik’s main street as by eight o’clock hordes of tour groups come surging in through the Pile Gate, led by a guide holding an umbrella or a clip board above their head and stopping every so often to point out some aspect of interest.
You can’t blame people for going there, Dubrovnik is absurdly picturesque and the side streets and alleys that lie on either side of the main street are great for hours of aimless wandering.
It costs about £7 to get on to the city’s walls but this is money well spent as it offers a great perspective of the walled city and the surrounding mountains and sea, although be warned it does entail clambering up and down a lot of sometimes narrow steps.
There are also dozens of boat trips from the city’s harbour, starting from about £15 for an hour and rising for all day ones.
Most people stay in hotels with their own private beaches that lie outside the old city walls, however, we booked a small apartment up a stepped side street, with half a dozen more staircases and twisting corridors inside before we got to our little Croatian hideaway.
The advantage was that by six in the evening, when most of the day trippers had left the streets were once again relatively uncrowded and we could enjoy uncluttered views.