Cities / Towns Visited: 60
Countries Visited: 17
Steps Taken Today: 17,737
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,111,555
Awaking bright and early, we readied ourselves and scurried downstairs to the complimentary breakfast of the hostel. Don’t think toast and cereal, this is Eastern Europe after all, so it was börek, fruit, sweet cakes, bread with rose hip jam, and an omelette each, made by a little old Bosnian lady who speaks exactly zero words of English. With the tables filled with a mix of Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, and a few odds and ends from around Western Europe, all of whom speak English, she just quietly came in, placed down our food in front of us and hurried out in the most endearing way. The majority of the instructions about the ins and outs of the meal were given by a rather perky New Zealander named Tom, whom we quietly debated either worked here, or had just been here for a while and was extroverted.
Meal done, we gathered outside for the full day tour of Herzegovina, that the hostel offers. Our guide, of who’s car we, along with a Dutch chick and a guy from Kenya who grew up in Australia, shared was named Žika, who we would later discover was the son-in-law of the lady dispensing the omelettes; it really was a family operation. With everything in order, we, and the other two cars full of tour participants bundled into our assigned vehicles and we set out.
The first of the five destinations we would be visiting that day took very little time to arrive at, but when we did it didn’t really appear to be anything of interest, and to be honest it looked a little dodgy. We parked and got out of the car to find ourselves at a dead end road, with high banks of land on either side, the ground strewn with rubbish, and a sheltered area at the end with a large opening on the right side. It was then that Žika gave us a little introduction to the site. He took a chance to give us a little pre-war history to explain how it had all come to a head. To my surprise he began by explaining how much better off things were before the war. Which seems only natural, until you realise he was saying he much preferred communist Yugoslavia to democratic independent countries. It seems almost sacrilegious to any first world country who fought for democracy that anyone would yearn for communism, and the dictator who led them. However, as he went on to explain, during the communist years the countries had all been united, all the religions had lived side by side in peace, and Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular had much more money, industry, and a higher standard of living. Their leader, Josip Broz Tito, although a dictator, was a benevolent one, and the war only began after his death, when the countries began fracturing, and hiding behind religion as a guise. In truth they were simply fighting for land and power, which is pretty standard really. Having now seen the state of Mostar, I kind of understood where Žika’s heartfelt speech was coming from.
Tito had lead Yugoslavia to become a strong nation, with a massive army, we’re talking third biggest in the world after America and Russia, ready to defend themselves should anyone attack. In the end they they had spent all of this money on preparing for a war from outside, but instead it would only ever be used to fight an internal battle, but that’s a story for later. Now, Mostar’s airport, and the factories around it, was where the army built their fighter jets. This brings us to where we were. This well concealed opening, topped with farmland, and the road to it that had also at one time been covered and camouflaged, made it almost invisible from the air, as intended. You see, through that door lays a massive hanger, in which the Yugoslav army could hide its fighter jets, and a large number of soldiers, officers, and VIP’s should they face an air raid. And when I say massive I mean you can fit 50 fighter jets in there along its tunnel, which is sealable by massive blast doors at either end.
As we walked closer it became glaringly obvious just how much this site has fallen into disrepair; littered with refuse, and smelling ever so slightly of urine near the entrance, we followed our guide into the hanger by the light of his torch and a few phone flashlights. Carefully stepping our way along in the cold darkness of the curved tunnel we reached the centre; the only point where both entrances are visible. At this point Žika told us to switch off our lights. Now there is something rather creepy about being lead into a pitch dark abandoned army tunnel and being made to stand there, but trust me what came next was without a doubt one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. He hushed us all and instructed that on the count of three we were all to yell. And so it came, one, two, three, and a rather half-hearted and tentative call escaped our lips. Then we heard it, an echo; not particularly exciting until you realise that it’s echoing out in either direction as slightly different speeds. Now if you’ve never heard a double echo it’s rather amusing I must say. Thus, unsurprisingly, our second yell was much louder.
On our way out, we stepped briefly into the now dank, damp space which would have been the control centre and the large room in which the bunk bed accommodation would have been. As your eyes get used to the dark, pierced only by the weak light of torches, you begin to see muddy shoe prints all over the walls. Žika encouraged us to add to it, taking our feet from the dirty puddles and making our mark on the walls of this long forgotten place; a strange but internationally signed guest book if you will. With our mark made, we headed onwards to our next destination.
We arrived soon after at Blagaj Tekija, an old Ottoman monastery from 1520AD when the Ottoman empire ruled over these lands, and which used to be a home for the Dervishes; the men who practice Sufi Islam and are best known for their whirling dance. This stunning old historic monastery is still a popular place of pilgrimage for many Muslims. Seeing its picture perfect positioning butted up against a cliff face and beside a small cave, up from which flows spring water feeding the river, it’s not hard to see why this would be considered a holy place in any religion, and a perfect place for a house of God.
Reasoning that we would not have time to go inside and view the monastery, especially not with myself having to be dressed with an extra gown and a headscarf as is custom for women entering, we instead decided to hop in the little boat on the waterside and take the quick paddle into the cave. When I say cave it’s more of a nook than anything, just enough space for the boat guide to take us in, turn the boat round, and linger with enough time to appreciate it before coming back out. Regardless of its briefness it offered a short retreat from the searing heat of the day, and moved us into the cool , made doubly so by the chilly spring water coming up from the depths and flowing out.
With the second stop done and dusted it was on to the next. Another drive saw us arriving at the small town of Pocitelj. As we stepped out of the car we were met with the view of a 15th century Ottoman style wall and defensive tower standing proud at the top of a steep mountain. Before we arrived Žika had informed us that the town gates used to be guarded by soldiers in centuries gone by, but now the worst we would have to deal with would be the two old gypsy women who accost you on your way in selling berries and fresh pomegranate juice. We were given some free time to either go up to the viewing point or the tower as we pleased, thus off we trotted. Passing through the gates we took Žika’s advice and purchased a bottle of pomegranate juice, and another of raspberry juice. It was so obviously homemade that it was simply delivered to you half frozen, from an esky, in a reused coco-cola bottle. Regardless, the tip was a good one and the deliciously sweet juice gave us all the energy and refreshment we needed to make it up the steep dirt covered streets to the lofty position of the tower in the blistering midday sun.
Reaching the bottom of the tower it was with both equal measures of awe and trepidation that we marched forth inside. It was more than obvious that there was no government body ensuring the preservation of this aging beauty, let alone one concerning itself with the OH&S status of it in regards to tourist usage. Despite all of that, we reasoned that it had stood up for the last nigh on six centuries, so it was unlikely that today was going to be the day that it came tumbling down. Stepping into the lower level it was a weird mix of beautiful old stone work and modern graffiti and litter. Moving on up the impossibly narrow, steep, and mildly terrifying spiral stairs we made it to the top floor. Once more, the lack of safety measures was clear with the windows out to the long drop back to earth in no way blocked, nor any warning signs about. I guess this is was happens when you don’t have a country filled with people ready to sue anyone at the drop of a hat. Using a measure of common sense we made our way around, admiring the view out of said windows from a safe distance. From one side a stunning view of the green-blue river running alongside the town, down in the valley. Out of the other, a picturesque view of the town itself, complete with a rather stunning mosque. Just as we were taking a moment to drink it all in, the scene was improved tenfold by the familiar sound of the midday call to prayer ringing out from below. It reminded my of our time in Istanbul, in all the best ways. At this point another tourist decided it was a great idea to sit in the window with his legs dangling out in order to obtain the coveted perfect selfie for the hour. Cringing slightly and shaking our heads, we took this as our cue to descend, hoping greatly that we would not find him in a crumpled mess at the bottom.
Scurrying back down the mountain, we handed the gypsy lady back our now empty bottles, so that she could wash and re-use them once more, and hopped back into the car. Soon enough we arrived at our second last destination; Kravice National Park. Paying the modest entrance fee we followed our guide down the path in the cool shade of the lush green trees until we reached our destination. As the foliage cleared we were met with a most wonderful sight; the mini Niagara Falls which is the Kravice Waterfalls. Looking almost fantastical as the curved arch of multiple cascades springs forth from the greenery above, just as the Krka Waterfalls do in Croatia. These freefall down, rushing through the rocks at the bottom, until they finally reach the cool, calm river at the base. It was clear that this sight was popular with tourists and locals alike, all of whom were either sunbathing, clambering over the rocks at the base of the falls (despite the warning signs), and splashing around in the cool water. Our guide had been kind enough to call in and book us tables at the restaurant just beside the river so that we could all grab a bite to eat while we enjoyed our couple of hours of free time here. Not only had they saved us tables, but they had saved us the best seats in the house; in the shade, directly beside the water, with a perfect view of the falls. Sitting with our Dutch and Kenyan car mates, we indulged in a delectable platter of grilled meats as we all spoke about out respective lives and travels.
Having finished our food, and enjoyed a good hour of chatting, it was time to stop resisting the inevitable and beat the heat by joining the countless others in the river. Leaving our things with our new Dutch friend, who was sitting happily enjoying the sunshine, and eating her self-catered meal which fit her unfortunately restrictive dietary needs, we, ever so gingerly, lowered ourselves out of the heat and into the comparatively chilly water. As is always the case, it was much more pleasant once we had finally submerged ourselves. Swimming upstream we reached the base of the rocks, and deciding to risk the slippery moss covered rocks to a certain, but still rather tame, degree, we clambered over until we reached a small pool into which the water was rushing down. Following in the footsteps of the few swimmers who had just departed the pool, we seized the opportunity to duck in under the thundering deluge. The water beating down on us was somewhere between being pummelled violently and a relaxing vichy massage; both painful and therapeutic in equal measure. Eventually it was time to reluctantly leave though, and we made our way back to the shore, slipped back into our dry clothes, and followed the group back to the cars.
Onwards we headed to our last stop for the day. Driving back towards Mostar we took a turn, and were all of a sudden on our way up one of the mountains which surround the historic old town in the valley. On each turn of the road there was a stone relief carving of a stage of Christ’s crucifixion, leading us to wonder exactly what it was we were going to find at the top. As the car was parked and we jumped out, we were faced with a truly enormous white cross, standing some twenty or so metres into the air. Now without knowing anything about it, it seems like just a simply display of religious worship, but as we walked over and looked down over the city below Žika took a moment to give us a little history. Seeing the pained look on his face, a mixture of sadness and anger intermingled, it was clear that this was a very personal story we were about to hear. In the following twenty minutes or so he gave as a brief overview of the horrible fighting which occurred in Mostar during the Yugoslav War and the years that followed. You see, the city was a peaceful one under Tito’s reign, but after his death the separate countries began to fight in a sudden land grab, with Serbia utilising the massive Yugoslav National Army and its huge store of munitions to try and overpower the others. After the countries all separated, a fight in which the Croats (Croatian Bosnians) and Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) fought together side by side in alliance, the differences and disagreements within Bosnia sparked the Croat-Bosniak War in 1992. People who used to be amicable neighbours despite their differences suddenly hid behind their beliefs as an excuse to segregate and fight; Mostar split into two sides, one for Muslim Bosnians, and one for Croatian Bosnians. For the almost two years these two sides fought, but it was much more complicated than saying it was about religion, as in the end it is always just about power, and I encourage you to delve into some self-education on the subject.
This mountain sits in the territory of the Croatian Bosnians, the majority of whom are Christian, and it is from this vantage point that they sniped and shelled the Muslim side of the city during the conflict, killing and injuring countless innocent civilians and fighters, as well as destroying numerous buildings, mosques, homes, and even the Stari Most Bridge which had stood for centuries connecting the two sides of the city. Basically wherever you can see the cross from in the city, you were in the firing line. It is from this mountain the Žika was shot twice, and it is from here that he lost many friends, family, and community members. This cross was not erected until after the war, and it is not hard to understand why the people of the Muslim Bosnian side of the city are so offended by its existence. It is in extremely poor taste to put up a symbol of a religion which preaches peace and compassion on a precipice which has caused so much death and destruction. In response the Muslim Bosnians put up a Bosnian Flag on the mountain opposite, with a message written in white stones which translates roughly to ‘We love you Bosnia and Herzegovina’. I guess sometimes you have to fight hate with love.
With heavy hearts we climbed back into the car, at which point Žika handed us one of the pieces of shrapnel that they removed from his leg during the war. It was surreal to be holding something which had caused so much pain to the main handing it to us, but in a way it was hauntingly helpful to feel the weight of something real to help explain the deep sorrow I felt from hearing his words. For many, it is too painful for them to come to this place, and I am in awe of Žika’s bravery to not only visit it, but to allow us to share in his story and experiences in order to better understand this beautiful but scarred place.
We arrived back at the hostel not long after, and decided to join in on the free walking tour of Mostar that they offer. Answering the burning question from breakfast, the tour is taken by Tom (yes, the New Zealander from the morning), who we were to learn had stayed here for a couple of weeks about a month prior, and was now back helping out on a voluntary basis. I will not run you through all that we saw on the tour now, as I know you are probably lagging from the overwhelming amount of information in this rather lengthy blog, but as we decided that we would retrace the places we were shown the following day in order to better appreciate them in our own pace, and when our brains were less overloaded with emotions, I will explain it all in the next one. Needless to say the tour ended up at the bar Žika runs. So as far as I can tell this poor man runs a tour from 8am — 6pm whenever anyone wishes to take it, then comes straight here and runs this bar until close before doing it all over again the next day. If anyone ever says that this country is in such a bad state because these people don’t work hard enough I have a fair few choice words to throw at them. Deciding to stay for a drink we went to order a couple of shots of rakija (the spirit of choice of the Balkan states), to which Žika insisted we could have for free and told us that his family makes it themselves. Again this is a country where people are struggling for money, but their hospitality is second to none despite the hardships. We then bought a couple of ciders and refused to take the change so that we could pay the cost of the shots without making things awkward. Sitting down with a few more people from the tour we whiled away a solid few ours drinking more cider and rakija and chatting about anything and everything with another Australian traveller who was also staying at the hostel.
Eventually we made our way back to our room, fixing a quick dinner despite the late hour and finally collapsing utterly exhausted into bed. As I thought about the days adventure it was with a mix of emotions. Our first impression of the Mostar had been stark to say the least, but the things we had seen and learnt here and around Herzegovina, and the people we had met, had opened my mind to the place; it had stolen a piece of my heart and evoked a deep empathy in my soul. It was like finding a wounded animal. It made me long so very much to have the financial means to help all of these people I could see trying their hardest just to get by. They have a truly stunning country, with endless amounts of history and natural beauty, but also countless scars which still need healing, so I beseech you, if you have the time and the means, come and visit this small corner of the world and bask in its treasures, listen to the locals and let their stories move you, open your heart and allow it to change you for the better. They have lost so much, but maybe, just maybe, a slice of the tourism pie could help them claw their way out of this mess left behind after the smoke cleared.