A Balkan road trip #3: Bosnia and Herzegovina

With the Adriatic sea reflected in the rear-view mirror – gleaming blue in the sunlight, as it was on the morning we left the Croatian riviera – we drove inland and entered Bosnia and Herzegovina again. We were bound to Sarajevo, where we were to spend two days before heading back to Tuzla, where the weekly Wizzair connection with Stockholm Skavsta would take us back to Sweden. On our way to the Bosnian capital, we made a stopover in the most famous city in Herzegovina, Mostar, to see one of the country’s most iconic landmarks.mostar bosnia herzegovinaMostar’s bridge, Stari Most, stood for 427 years and connected both physically and symbolically the many ethnic groups that have always inhabited the Balkan region. Until November 9, 1993, when it was destroyed by bombing during the Bosnian War. The bridge was eventually rebuilt in 2004. We descended down by the banks of the Neretva river to photograph it from below, then climbed up the minaret of Koski Mehmed Paša Mosque to enjoy the view of the bridge and the two halves of the city it connects from above.

mostar bosnia herzegovinamostar bosnia herzegovinamostar bosnia herzegovinaThe destruction of the bridge was probably the the hardest strike on the city of Mostar, one that left a true mark on the city’s identity. The war did not stop then, but 1993 remained a fixed moment in history for Mostar and the weight of what happened then is something nobody should ever dare to forget.

It’s hard to forget what happened in the ’90s over there, anyway; the city still bears so many scars from the war. Although the old town has been for the most part restored, it still features some buildings displaying shell holes. The more one ventures out of the historical centre, the more visible the scars get. Just off the touristic path and into the actual city where the locals live, the number of shelled buildings is still very high. Some are just damaged on the outside but are still functional, others are just destroyed skeletons still standing.

mostar-bosnia-herzegovina-21mostar bosnia herzegovinamostar bosnia herzegovinamostar bosnia herzegovinaFeeling guilty with some sort of macabre voyeurism, I could’t restrain my will to see more and more, my eyes traveling eagerly over the crumbled buildings left there from 20 years back. The Yugoslavian war is the first war I have conscious memory of. Back in the mid-90s I was in primary school and I remember learning what a war is when my teachers would tell us what was happening on the other side of the sea. Soon after the war was over, my school started a pen-pal project with a Croatian school; we all sent boxes of toys to these kids and one day the girl who had received my parcel wrote back. We started a correspondence that lasted several years and she even gave my address to two of her friends, so at some point I was corresponding with three girls in Croatia. I would write my letters in my language, they would write back in theirs. I could understand very little of what they were writing to me and I believe they were feeling the same about my letters, but that didn’t really matter and we kept on corresponding. Finding a coloured envelope from Croatia in my mailbox would always bring me great joy. I had made friends in a different country, in a different culture, way before both the internet and the English language entered my life, and those letters represented the start of all the international and multicultural friends I made over my life.

Mostar made a great impression on me. Twenty years are two thirds of my life and to me they feel like an eternity, but it’s definitely not a long enough time to fully recover from a war. But life went on, and Mostar got its bridge standing once again. As I was taking in the sharp contrasts of what’s gone forward and what seems frozen in time, I started wondering how rightful it is to get rid of all the atrocious testimonies of the war. I couldn’t shake off the shame I was feeling for being so attracted by those destroyed buildings, and deep down I wished that the people of Mostar had always had their original bridge standing and had never had to endure that terrible war. But that’s not how things went: the war happened, then Mostar stood up again and it now looks towards a brighter future. All the crumbled buildings are the scars of that near past. Removing them completely would be unfair, would make memory fade, would betray the intention to never forget ’93.

In terms of reconstruction, one can tell that much more effort was put into the capital city. After leaving Mostar, we reached Sarajevo and allowed ourselves more time to explore it. Although still visible here and there, scarred and destroyed buildings are definitely outnumbered by whole and renewed or brand new constructions. Of course, even Sarajevo has its share of mementos, and its landscape is patched with what to me was the most shocking testimony from the war: the number and size of its cemeteries. Graveyards in Sarajevo have literally been fitted wherever there was an area clear of buildings. I think I have never seen a city with more cemeteries than Sarajevo.

sarajevo bosnia herzegovinasarajevo bosnia herzegovinaWe’ve been lucky to have a local as our private guide on our first day in Sarajevo. The friend of a friend of a friend, he took us on a long walk exploring his city’s multiple sides. Better remembered for the Bosnian War, Sarajevo is also linked to another modern war, as the Bosnian capital had been the setting of the killing of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the event that ultimately triggered the First World War.

sarajevo bosnia herzegovinaThe city had been under the Austro-Hungarian rule at the time, with German as the official language and a clear Habsburg influence also in the city planning, as one can tell looking at downtown Sarajevo from above.

sarajevo-bosnia-herzegovina-06sarajevo bosnia herzegovinaOur guide also took us to a couple of interesting restaurants where we could sample some local delicacies. I had landed in Bosnia with the desire to taste a real burek and some authentic ćevapčići and both my wishes came true in Sarajevo.

One thing I didn’t get to see in Sarajevo was the remains of the facilities that had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984. We tried to locate them, but we were short on time and got lost trying, so we gave up. I guess that this will be the reason why I will one day go back to Sarajevo. This, and one more portion of ćevapčići, please.

sarajevo bosnia herzegovina

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My Balkan road trip took me through the two main cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Sarajevo and Mostar. This post is an overview of my exploration of the two cities and the traditional food I found there.

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