Reflections of a retired Englishman on his experiences during an impetuous visit to Bosnia and the people's recovery after the nineties war
An intriguing article on Bosnia’s recovery after their war in the nineties prompted me to take a trip and I found myself one week later exiting Sarajevo airport, being welcomed most warmly by my hotel’s driver.
The clean and comfortable family run Hotel Kandilj is situated in the old quarter near the Kaiser Bridge, where Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in June 1914 led to the outbreak of the First World War.
Sarajevo’s old quarter, full of narrow winding cobbled alleyways, is the main tourist centre and has been beautifully restored to its original condition. I was struck by the cleanliness of it all. It’s so difficult to imagine the destruction the city suffered just a few years before, particularly during its three-year siege. With the surrounding green hills as a backdrop, it presented a most delightful and exciting place to wander around.
Dozens of small restaurants and coffee shops fill the streets alongside many churches: Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, synagogues and minaret-adorned mosques. As I strolled among the local smartly-dressed business people enjoying their lunch breaks I decided to join in and ordered what they were all having: Cevapcici - pita bread filled with tiny sausages and served with a pile of finely-chopped raw onions on the side. It’s a finger and fork exercise and I found it delicious, and it cost only about three pounds equivalent, including a drink. You have to choose your café or restaurant carefully as alcohol cannot be served within a certain distance from a mosque, although to me this was part of the interest of my holiday.
My wandering took me into the fashionable district along Ferhadija Street, where all the latest high-fashion boutiques are to be found. It is highly sophisticated and bears comparison to any city in Europe. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed.
Efficient electric trams
I caught one of the many frequent electric trams, and for about the equivalent of two pounds I purchased a day ticket enabling me to tour the city, getting on and off as and when the area looked interesting. This is a good and cheap way to explore the city away from the centre. It is here where the shelling damage is most evident; the smoke blackened walls of high-rise apartment blocks still with bullet damage. Many large burnt out houses with trees now growing inside and through the smashed roofs. I recognised the yellow painted Holiday Inn, now repaired, where the TV reporters stayed during the siege. There are signs of work restoring the damaged roads and I came across a group relaying slabs on a path that runs through an avenue of trees alongside the central Miljacka River.
The Secret siege tunnel
I was determined to visit a house, now a museum, where the inhabitants dug a tunnel, almost a kilometre in length, under the UN-controlled airport to smuggle food and desperately needed medical supplies into the city. The digging took four months and four days to complete. Eventually they also laid a rail track to push carts along, a cable to get electricity through to essential services and then a pipe to pump fuel from a tanker on the ‘Free Bosnia’ side into a tanker on the siege side. This was an amazing achievement. Although the Serbs were aware of the tunnel’s position they never destroyed it, despite ten thousand shells over two years. I was able to go down to what remains of the tunnel and tried to imagine carrying a sack of potatoes in a crouched position for the two hours I was told it took. You can take an organised coach trip there, but I opted for a taxi which cost twenty two pounds equivalent, including waiting while I made my visit; well worth the money. My driver then proudly informed me that he was one of the digging team; to me that was the icing on the cake.
The World Heritage bridge at Mostar
Part of my arranged trip was a three-hour coach journey through beautiful countryside to Mostar to see the 16th century World Heritage bridge wantonly destroyed in 1993. Restored and opened in 2004 it somehow represents the Bosnian people’s determination to rebuild their country, and the reconstructed bridge and city of Mostar is a symbol of reconciliation and hope for their future.
Hotel Kriva Cuprija is just a ten minute walk to the bridge. It is brand new and very comfortable. The breakfast is included in the price and the English speaking staff are friendly and helpful. I managed to see the young men of the town diving off the bridge into the Neretva River, a drop that is nearly two and a half times higher than the Olympic diving board!
A crazy scooter ride
The receptionist suggested I visited the Dervish Monastery some twelve kilometres away, so I caught the local bus just outside the hotel. A few pence and 30 minutes later it dropped me off at Blagaj, where I had a half kilometre walk through picturesque scenery to the monastery - a wooden building perched overlooking the source of the Bruna River. The setting is beautiful with the river dropping down shallow rapids into the distant hills. Well worth the trip with the monastery so interesting and a lovely restaurant in this delightful setting. While waiting for the return bus I was offered a lift back to Mostar on a scooter by a young man called Michelle. He took me on a hair-raising journey along a shortcut he knew across the hills. This crazy youth turned out to be one of the Mostar Bridge divers, which didn’t surprise me in the least.
A fascinating short trip that inspires a return visit. Most people speak English and are extremely friendly. The costs are very reasonable and the local currency is the Marka which can be obtained by changing euros/dollars in the modern local banks.