A Balkan journey

The Balkans has long held a unique kind of fascination for me. I’d spent some time in Croatia and Slovenia and had read alot about the region during my Masters, aswell as in various novels over the years. The region has a long and fascinating history, is culturally diverse, naturally beautiful, complex and compelling. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia and in particular in Bosnia is one of the first conflicts I remember seeing on TV (aside from Northern Ireland). I have vague memories of footage of people running across streets in Sarajevo, scaling down apartment buildings that were burning, pushing water containers through the snow in wheelbarrows. I remember the name Srebrenica being said over and over. 


I know that a country is informed by its past but seldom defined by it, so I was curious to visit Bosnia 25 years after the height of the conflict. I hadn’t done a massive amount of research. I knew I’d find it hard to get vegetarian food. I knew not to make sweeping generalisations, or dish out any hot takes about the conflict  Other than that, I had four books, two bags, and one of myself for company. 


Sarajevo sits between towering mountains, with the Miljacka river running through the middle. The city wears its history on its buildings. The Baščaršija is the old Ottoman part of the city and has its own distinct atmosphere. Coffee is served Turkish styles, worshippers and visitors gather around the Gazi Huzr Beg Mosque, and silversmiths still practice their craft down little winding alleys that now house mostly either souvenir shops or places serving cevapi and burek. The Baščaršija is also home to the world’s oldest public toilet – you learn something new every day!


The Baščaršija in Sarajevo

The buildings from the Habsburg era are ornate and grand; the city hall, library and opera house being notable examples. The streets are wide and open in comparison to the winding maze of the Baščaršija, and feel much like the streets of Vienna or Budapest. As you move further out, the buildings start to feel like those found in many former Eastern Bloc countries; tall, grey, sparse. 


If you look in any detail at a building in Sarajevo, you will see signs of the war. In some cases this is bullet holes and visible shell damage. In other cases, it is bombed out buildings that have not been rebuilt, skeletal and eerie. Sarajevo feels like a city full of hope, a city with its face turned firmly to the sun, carrying its wounds proudly into the future. It is unique to walk around a city and feel like you are both fully in the shadows of its past and also looking down the path to its future.


Bullet holes on an apartment building in Sarajevo

I was only in Sarajevo for two days but I was struck by how much the city has taken on board its traumatic past; there was nothing about Sarajevo that is trying to hide from where it has been. I’ve been to a few places like this – Berlin, Auschwitz, Bayeux, the slave forts in Ghana – but Sarajevo has really stayed with me in this way. It is something we are not good at in Ireland. We brush over enormous wounds from our history, wounds like the civil war, the famine, and the Magdalene laundries. 


The siege of Sarajevo lasted for nearly four years. At the start of the siege, there were approximately 435,000 people living in the city. By the end of the siege, over 10,000 civilians had been killed, including 1,601 children, 69 of whom were killed by sniper fire. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that everyone I saw who was my age and older had been teenagers during the siege. In a city that size, everyone must have lost someone. And then of course there was the hunger, the cold, the lack of water, the psychological trauma, the world turning its back. Sarajevo had long prided itself on being a city for everyone. There is a mosque, an Orthodox church, and a catholic cathedral within 500sqm area. 


Sarajevo was always a city that didn’t put much emphasis on national labels, where everyone lived alongside everyone else, and it had the highest rate of mixed marriages in the country. The city and her people did not want the war or what it represented. It was brought to them, raining down from the hills. Our guide on a walking tour was at pains to get across that there are no divisions in Sarajevo, that everyone mixes, everyone respects each other, that the city thrives on its unity. It made the loss and trauma of the conflict somehow more poignant, that the city was pulled into a crippling division it did not itself adhere to. 


Across the city there are subtle and poignant memorials. Sarajevo Roses are mortar holes that have been filed with red resin, marking a spot where a large number of civilians were killed. The one pictured here marks the place where 22 people were killed while queuing up for bread.  There is a plaque on a nearby wall listing their names – Serb names, Bosnian names, Croat names, side by side. In a park there is a memorial to all of the children killed during the siege, listing out their names and ages. Up a hill in the same park are rows of headstones, like you find all over the city, many of them bearing the same date. 


Sarajevo roses

Our guide on the walking tour talked about what it is like to be a young person in Sarajevo. Wages are low, rents are high, and emigration is common. The aspiration of many young Sarajevans seems to be moving to Austria or Germany, something I can relate to having grown up in Ireland. Unemployment is rampant. She talked alot about how people with very little disposable income will still find a way to buy coffee, because it is the time when people sit and talk together. She explained the complex web of politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina (there are three prime ministers!). She talked about the nostalgia people have for Tito and for Yugoslavia (there was alot of Tito memorabilia everywhere), a time of prosperity, unity, and freedom of movement. We visited the spot where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, generally seen as the catalyst for the outbreak of World War 1. There is a simple plaque marking the spot just across from the Roman bridge at a junction where there was once a hotel. As she pointed out the route he took that morning and how events unfolded she said ‘Sarajevo, always at the crossroads of history’. 


I went to two museums about genocide and war crimes in Sarajevo. There was no attempt to hide the horrors, nor should there be. One of these museums is solely about Srebrenica. There is video testimony, written testimony, photos, personal items recovered from mass graves. There are accounts of the appalling apathy and negligence of the UN forces. In the second museum, there are letters written by people living within the besieged city, clothes that people died in, photo after photo of bodies exhumed from mass graves, photos of people being beaten, starved and killed, photos of people clustered together waiting to cross a road, weighing up the likelihood of sniper fire. In a glass cabinet, items recovered from a mass grave are on display; a watch, a passport, money, a child’s soother, a tiny shoe. The walls are covered with place names where hundreds of people were killed, sometimes burned alive, sometimes shot, place names that never made it into our media. There are endless accounts of rape. Because the war was so recent, there is alot of footage, photos and documented first hand accounts of what happened. There are stories of resilience and resistance, how people held their community together while their city fell around them. Stories of how the world turned its back and wrung its hands while people were starved, raped and systematically wiped out. 


It was overwhelming. I was physically shaking all over when I left, and I am in no way squeamish or naive about the suffering and horror of the world. I walked around trying to get a handle on my thoughts. These are times when solo travel is hard, not having someone to sit with, talk to, and remember that the world is not all darkness. I got a cheese and spinach burek and sat on a bench, watching the city come and go and was struck, as I so often am, at the sheer resilience of the human spirit.


I left the next day for Mostar. I took one of the old trams accros the city to the bus station (Sarajevo’s tram system is amazing). Buses in BiH are not late, but they’re also not on time. The system for getting tickets favours face to face cash transactions (card payments are generally a rarity) – people who had booked tickets online still had to queue up to pay the additional tax in cash. You pay to put your bag in the hold but there’s no indication of this anywhere; it might depend on how the conductor is feeling. One of the bus drivers was so grumpy it was nearly comical and the guy selling the tickets looked at me like my very existence was a general inconvenience to his life. I don’t subscribe to the idea that everyone needs to be friendly, especially not to tourists coz let’s face it, tourists can be kinda assholes. 


I realised that the travelling I have done around Africa and India has made me remarkably calm about journeys. I’ve accepted that it’s hard to tell what’s going on alot of the time, that things don’t always run to your own personal schedule, and that you always get there in the end. Some tourists frantically gesticulated at the driver (who could not have given fewer fucks if he tried) and pointed at their watches or bags or tickets. The bus will leave when it leaves, lads, and I suspect waving your ticket at Grumpy Grumperson won’t make it any other way.


Mostar is best know for it’s beautiful single arch stone bridge, Stari Most. The bridge was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and the lead architect Mimar Hayruddin, was apparently threatened with death if construction failed. He was so convinced that the construction would fail that he had planned his own funeral for the day the bridge was unveiled. 


Stari Most

Hoardes of people descend on Mostar on day trips from Dubrovnik, cram themselves into the narrow streets of the old town, look at the bridge and then feck off back to Dubrovnik. 

Stari Most stood the test of time until it was destroyed through prolonged bombardment by Croat forces in November 1993. It was painstakingly rebuilt between 2001-2004. The single hump of the bridge rises to 24 metres above the river. The stones are worn and slippy from countless feet crossing it over the generations. Young men dive off the highest point, collecting money from tourists before and after – a kind of high-risk adrenaline heavy busking. Only well trained divers, most of whom are from the area, undertake this as it is a LONG way down. 


The bridge is impressive and the view from below back up to the old Turkish part of the town is really lovely. I got up early one morning and went to the bridge before the crowds arrived, and also got the full glare of the sunset on it in the evening. It is iconic and majestic, and pretty incredible that it was commissioned and built 500 years ago. But it is just a bridge. And the hoardes of people who only go to look at the bridge before scuttling back to their buses surely miss out on alot of Mostar’s story.


Walking from the bus station when I arrived,, I was struck by how many bombed out derelict buildings there were along the main road. There has been no repair other than what is needed to stop them collapsing. I followed google maps to where my apartment was marked, but kept turning back as it felt like there was nothing down that particular street except for bombed out buildings. A guy came out of a café to ask if I needed help (I clearly looked very lost). He escorted me down the road, and through an archway of what was once a fully intact building (see photo). Out the back were a small cluster of apartments. I literally never would have found it without his confidence that there are homes just behind these ruins.


Entrance to my apartment in Mostar…it was through that archway to the right of the photo

Walking into town later, I passed a large abandoned building just across from my apartment – I’d say it was once apartments or offices. Looking inside, there was rubbish, furniture, rubble, the odd rusty item sticking out of the rubble. Reminders of a life once lived there. It seemed that the rebuilding efforts stopped abruptly at the edges of the touristy old town. That evening I started walking out to the old Partisans memorial, now abandoned and derelict, but it got dark before I made it that far and it didn’t feel wise to continue. Chances are it would be fine, but in a city that I’m not familiar with and that has areas that are so clearly neglected, my cautious side often wins out.Mostar is clearly still very divided. The Croats mainly live on one side of town, and the Bosniaks on another. There is one high school, but the Croat students have a different curriculum and schedule to the Bosniak students (I heard varying accounts of this but it seems there is certainly some sort of systematic segregation within the school). While in Sarajevo, the first thing people talked about was unity; in Mostar talk very quickly turned to division. I heard alot of visitors expressing disbelief at the concept of a segregated school, wondering why mistrust lingers after a conflict has ended; and while the divisions in Mostar were stark, they were not entirely surprising or alien to me. I know what it feels like when history and experience have taught you to fundamentally distrust a particular country or nation. Trust is not so easily won and long standing divisions not so easily overcome.


I went on a tour that took in an old Ottoman village that is still largely intact and home to an artists collective, the beautiful Kravice waterfall, and Blagaj dervish house. This dervish house is built into the face of a cliff, and as such was the only religious house of any faith not to be damaged or destroyed during the conflict. Our guide was interesting and informative, but things started getting a bit weird when he had a go at two Catalans in the group about the movement for Catalan independence. Someone asked a question about the amount of Nazi grafitii visible, and he responded that all Croats were Nazis. He became increasingly wound up and was, let’s say, clearly not a fan of the Croats. He told us he had been 4 years old during the main bombardment of Mostar. It was hard to judge him for being angry and suspicious, and equally it was hard to see what kind of a pathway might lead beyond this mistrust and suspicion and anger when their roots run so deep on all sides. 


Sarajevo felt hopeful. Mostar felt tense.


I had got chatting to a Scottish guy on the tour and we had bonded over trying to figure out Brexit  (it was the day BoJo suspended parliament) and an interest in travel, so we went for a beer afterwards to try to unravel the complex web that is involved in any attempt to understand BiH history and politics. All I could think of was how utterly dysfunctional and despairing but wholly straightforward Irish politics is by comparison. 


The other notable thing about Mostar was that it was roasting. It was about 40 degrees both days; something to do with the limestone rocks in the cliffs holding the heat.. And I got mauled by mosquitoes while drinking beer by the river, to the point where I still have scars three months later. 


I had an experience in Mostar that is unique to solo travellers. It was tricky to find vegetarian food and I passed a place one night that was serving enormous platters of delicious looking vegetarian food. I asked for a table and the one hostess, who was in perpetual motion co-ordinating tables and taking orders, put me sitting on a stool to wait. She then seated 4 couples ahead of me. I started to get a bit uncomfortable, but figured she knew her own system. Eventually she pointed me towards a table….sitting with the most ridiculously good looking couple imaginable. They were very polite and smiley and I smiled back and then hid in my kindle while working my way through the mound of amazing food. When the couple left, the hostess gestured to another couple and said ‘you can sit with this lady here’. The girl in the couple looked at me,  looked at the hostess and shook her head with a look of visible distaste. Now, I’m sure she just wanted an intimate dinner with her boyfriend. But the look she gave me was like she thought she might catch The Single Plague off me. The hostess gave me a free beer and said ‘thank you for everything’. It was a weird walk home. 


It can be intimidating walking into a restaurant or bar on your own, especially when you don’t speak the language. Several times over the course of the holiday, I was told ‘you can’t sit there, you need a smaller table’, even though there are literally NEVER tables set for one. Several times I was moved to make space for couples. It generally doesn’t bother me, but every so often it would be nice not to have society be all ‘EWWWW LOOK AT HER ON HER OWN’ just because I want to have dinner. 


I went from Mostar to Kotor in Montenegro with the intention of spending time by the sea and not thinking about genocide for a bit. Montenegro is gorgeous, all dramatic cliffs and azure waters.The house I was staying in had its own swimming area outside the front door. I swam every day, drank Aperol spritz, climbed the old city walls, sat in many beautiful squares, read alot, went to the cat museum and avoided the mix of loved up couples and drunkenly over enthusiastic backpackers (Kotor is a bit of a party town) as best I could. Kotor is a stop for many cruise ships, some days there were three of them anchored in the bay. They spew out thousands of people onto the narrow, hot streets of the old town. They disrupt the marine life and they dominate the view of the bay. One evening I walked out of the historical loveliness of the old town to be met with the vista of an enormous cruise ship that had pulled right into the harbour. It dominated my entire line of vision. They blow their horns when they’re leaving, they are unsightly and its hard to see how they are anything other than environmentally disruptive. I may be turning into a grumpy auld wan, but I got increasingly annoyed at them as the days went on. 


View from the entrance to the gaff in Kotor

The old city walls and fort crawl up above the old town and are generally very spectacular and cool. It costs €8 for entry and the climb is steep and sweaty. I started it at about 9.30am and it was still roasting. I’m not entirely sure what the €8 is for because it definitely wasn’t for bins. Pink plastic bags hung off the walls and were already overflowing with plastic bottles by 10am. As some of you may know, I have limited patience for avoidable single use plastic. There are fountains all over Kotor where you can fill  up your bottle. And there is nothing stopping you putting an empty bottle in your bag and bringing it to a proper bin later on. But people just dumped their empty bottles on the ground for someone else to clean up after them. In some cases, people just skipped the pretence of putting them near the plastic bags and just dropped them where they stood. I wrote previously about my feelings about mass tourism in Santorini, and Kotor definitely brought back those feelings. People can be real fucking entitled assholes (thank you for coming to my TED talk).


Part of the old city walls and fort in Kotor, minus ten million plastic bottles

I feel like Bosnia and Montenegro taught me alot, about nationalism, trauma, healing, division, unity. Swimming in the sea every day was restorative and calming. Getting some actual sun was energising.  It was lovely to have time to read, to people watch, to drink wine at 3pm, to wander without any real purpose around beautiful old streets. But by day 7, I was getting bored with myself. Solo travel is great, but it can be lonely. I am passed going out of my way to strike up conversations with strangers. Being on my own for a week in Spain in April was glorious; I relished having that time to myself and being able to indulge in whatever I wanted to do in a given day, to do all the nerdy history things I wanted and structure my days around multiple meals and glasses of wine.  But by the end of 2 weeks, I was craving a bit of company. . So I was happy to come home, grateful for yet another opportunity to visit beautiful places, have the privilege of watching life unfold in another city and learn the infinite lessons about myself and the world that travel always provides. 

I am writing this now, months later, because something stopped me writing it at the time. I think that thing was loneliness; I didn’t want to see what might come out onto the page. So every day I would look at my notebook, and every day I would not write in it. And since coming home, every day I would want to write about this and no words would come.  And now the words are coming, as they always eventually do, imperfectly formed but very real and very much my own. 


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