“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” Mark Twain once said.
If a greater proportion of the worlds populous took to the skies, oceans and roads and took such advice on then maybe, just maybe, the world would not be covered with scars of war, hatred and genocide.
Disparities along the lines of religion, ethnicities and any other means with which we choose to differentiate each other with could be rendered irrelevant.
Alas the scars of the world are proof that divisions do exist and the fall out that all too often takes place leave an eternal pain
that even the great healer that is time find difficult to overcome.
One such corner of our world that experienced the consequences of people using differences to enact unspeakable and unforgivable evil acts is the Balkans.
When travelling somewhere new the usual suspects of emotions are present.
The anticipation and excitement of seeing a new land, people, culture, cuisine and way of life come to the fore. Sadly when travelling to Bosnia such emotions were tempered by the events of modern history placing apprehension on the opposite scale to the standard pre travel vibes I would ordinarily feel.
You can’t mention or think about Bosnia without thinking about the war of the 1990’s.
Certain countries are sadly associated with a conflict of unimaginable pain and heartache. Try thinking of anything other than genocide when Rwanda is mentioned. Go on try.
The country has pleasingly made huge strides since but those awful images from the darkest of days in 1994 cannot simply be erased.
So back to Bosnia and the trip.
The name Bosnia is derived from the Bosna River, which cuts through the region. Would our time there allow us to cut through the recent suffering to reveal a land with a far greater, optimistic and positive outlook?
When we arrived in the small mountain town of Srebrenica after a full days of travel it is fair to say the dreary and damp weather that welcomed us matched the groups mood.
Maybe it was only fitting this was the case.
The Srebrenica Genocide Memorial was a stark and tangible symbol of the sometimes abhorrent action that man is capable of.
Each of the eight thousand or more identical headstones represent an individuals story, a living persons grief and a reminder of a crime which was the worst to have taken place on this continent since the horrors of WW2. The surrounding hills and mountains stand as witnesses to the very worst of human form but also continue to conceal any closure to families who want nothing more than to bury their beloved. The remains of 72 recently identifieid victims were buried on the 22nd anniversary of the massacre in July.
We then moved onto the former battery factory which in turn housed the totally inept Dutch UN and today stands as a museum.
Harrowing stories were told through the medium of videos, art, graffiti , eye witness accounts and most poignantly of all through personal belongings found with those whose lives were so wickedly taken.
I think it’s fair to say it was a tough first day of the trip.
From genocide to siege and onwards to the capital city of Sarajevo, sometimes referred to as the ‘ Jerusalem of Europe’
due to its historic and diverse cultures which has shaped its very being.
It was a very pleasant, crisp autumn morning as we set off to explore the Stari Grad, the oldest and historically significant area of the city.
With its narrow cobbled streets, bustling shops and skies decorated with minarets it didn’t take too much of an effort on the imagination front to feel you had taken a step back in time. A time when the Ottoman influence on the area is clear for all to witness.
The melange of cuisine available and their origins of influence reiterate why Sarajevo
was known as the place where east meets west. So much so that on Ferhadija street a compass on the floor perfectly and succinctly illustrates the point.
Turkish coffee and an Austrian Hungarian inspired dessert preceded Juma’ah prayer in the exquisite Gazi Husrev-beg mosque. Cevapi followed it. The national dish was to become the staple diet of our trip.
A relaxing afternoon of strolling, shopping and sightseeing then took place. Unlike other holiday experiences there was no frantic haggling or uncomfortable and hard salesmanship which only added to the calm ambience of this charming quarter of the city.
We made our way back to the hotel over the Latin bridge. It was close to here where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in the summer of 1914 resulting in WW1.
It was a stark reminder that this was a city whose natural tranquility was often punctuated by violence and bloodshed.
The following day we visited the ‘The Tunnel of Hope”, a remarkable feat in human engineering and endurance which provided the lungs to a city to breathe which was under siege for nearly four years from Serbian forces.
A hand dug 800m long lifeline which Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and co would have been proud of transported basic foods, ammunition and livestock including goats!!
Just as wondrous as the working tunnel was the fact that despite intense efforts by the Serbs its location remained a secret throughout the seize.
Sarajevo is a truly remarkable city with a equally remarkable past.
There can be no better symbol to represent it as a city and it’s people than the Sarajevo Rose. During the siege, intense bombardment with mortar shells would often leave a concrete scar on the face of buildings or on roads that looked uncannily like roses.
Red resin was used to paint them to commemorate the deaths they caused.
Out of the darkness of war the people paid tribute to lost loved ones whilst leaving behind an indelible feature both in poignancy and beauty. This is the memory I will take with me from this city and its beautiful people.
The hands of my country
Are dripping with blood
But the heart
Is still able
To breathe for love.
(Unknown Bosnian poet)
The final part of our Bosnian experience took us to the southern historic and majestic town of Mostar and its stunning natural surroundings.
Developed in the 15th century by the Ottomans, its name is derived from the gatekeepers (mostari) of its most famous landmark, the Stari Mosta (old bridge)
The famous Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote in the 17th century that “the bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other. I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky”
Unfortunately this tranquil town was not spared from conflict either. During the Croat- Bosniak war the bridge was targeted by the Croats and destroyed after standing for over 400 years.
A coalition of organisations including Unesco was formed to oversee its reconstruction. After much painstaking work it was officially opened in the summer of 2004 much to the delight of the locals, subsequent visitors and the famous diving club intrinsically associated with it. A diving club that continued its age old tradition even whilst the war was ongoing.
If only it was as simple to mend human pain and suffering as it is to to repair and rebuild physical objects. If only.
White water rafting on the Neretva river provided a much needed release of energy as we passed over crystal clear waters that carve through the rocky valley. The various rapids and jumping opportunities along the route only added to this highly enjoyable activity.
The fun on the water was counterbalanced by a visit to the Blagaj Tekija Dervish sanctuary. An opportunity for some quiet reflection and a chance to sample the culinary delights of its famous trout dishes.
Our final destination was to take us back across the Croatian border and to the very popular tourist destination of Dubrovnik. En route we took the opportunity to stop off at the impressive and scenic Kravice waterfalls. More fun in the water.
Dubrovnik is an outstandingly beauteous intact walled city on the Adriatic Sea. George Bernard Shaw once said “those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik and find it”. His words, if put before a court of law charged with exaggeration would be found unanimously not guilty.
A proud and rich history which thankfully has been preserved in its stunning architecture reveal a visual delight at each turn, all linked together by a myriad of narrow streets which you gladly allow yourself to be lost in.
An array of delightful cafes and restaurants provided a pleasant and relaxing chance to reflect back on an enjoyable and often intense seven day trip that took in four locations in two countries resulting in a full spectrum of emotions.
Bosnia, Croatia; Thanking you for the memories.