Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sojourn in sarajevo (plus a moment in mostar)

Monday 8–Thursday 11 September 2014

Discovering mostar

While researching ways to get from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo I came across another destination halfway between them – the historic city of Mostar, a tourist attraction in its own right. We decided to make our way there from Dubrovnik early in the morning, then take an afternoon bus on to Sarajevo, breaking up the journey and giving us a few hours to see the famous bridge and wander the surrounding streets of the old town, which retains its charming medieval Ottoman aesthetic.


The most striking part of pulling into the city was the spectre of the 1992–1995 Bosnian war that still pervaded it so evidently, a fact that would hold true for the rest of our time in Bosnia and Herzegovina. When we were originally deciding how best to fill our time between the end of the trans-Siberian railway in St Petersburg and Oktoberfest in Munich, we'd been tossing up between travelling north from Dubrovnik via sea on a Croatian sailing cruise or venturing inland to see Sarajevo, and it was the recommendation of our friend Hayley that sent us on the inland route. Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Sarajevo in particular, she told us, were just such utterly fascinating places, unique mixtures of modernity and tradition, different ethnic influences, flourishing alternative cultural scenes, and still so marked by a war we as Gen-Ys are just old enough to remember on the news. And she was so right.

The first thing was the graves. Everywhere we went in Bosnia and Herzegovina we saw so many graves, marked by slender white obelisk tombstones pointing heavenward in uniform rows like chalk tally marks, all of them unnaturally bearing the same years of death: 1993, 1994, 1995. Later, from a lookout on a hill in Sarajevo, we'd see entire swathes of the city and the sloping hills surrounding it (from the vantages of which Serbian snipers picked off the lives of innocent civilians during the siege of Sarajevo) given over to graves, the land bristling with tragedy. It was a constant, chilling reminder. It called to mind the stories I'd heard at my new, very culturally diverse school as a twelve-year-old of Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian children who took years to feel comfortable playing in the fields at lunchtime because they were taught to fear landmines in fields at home. 

The other part was the bullet and mortar marks pockmarking nearly every wall and facade, and the dozens of ruined and collapsed buildings haunting otherwise ordinary streets. There are some new buildings, of course, and others that have been restored, but many of the holes have only been filled in with cement, so the damage is still very obvious, and for many buildings more no restoration has been performed at all. It was certainly surprising and confronting, but some tourists we met, in an attitude that can only be borne out of extreme ignorance and privilege, seemed to exhibit a surprise that verged on scorn, as in: it's been so long since the war; you'd think they'd have fixed it by now. Well, what do you do when nearly every building in your country has sustained at least superficial damage, when your economy, your population, let alone your national spirit, has been so severely depleted by such a heinous war?

This attitude also ignores the tremendous amount of progress that has been made. The famous Stari Most bridge in Mostar, for example, was destroyed during the war, and the surrounding old town precinct sustained as much damage as anywhere else, but both are now pristine, making for a stark contrast as we walked from the bus station on the outskirts of town into the gleaming, brilliant centre, straddling the pure aqua torrent of the Neretva River. The most sinister thing in the centre was the tourist shops selling models and statues made out of bullet casings, something I imagine must have been abundant in the years after the war. But then I suppose you could also read it the other way: growth and profit emerging from the side-effects of pain and suffering.

Neretva River.

In front of the Stari Most.

Old town streets.

Taking the plunge

We wandered around browsing the Arabic shops and looking for a place to eat lunch before settling on a place with a nice view of the river, where we watched four guys jumping off a platform into the water over and over again until I began to wonder if it was even fun for them anymore. It turned out later that they were actually training to jump off the bridge, which I didn't even know you could do! The Stari Most is seriously high – 20 metres – so you can do some damage if you don't hit the water right. Apparently you pay the locals to train you, practising off the platform, and if they don't think you're doing it right they'll advise against jumping off the bridge.

Culinary quirkiness

After lunch we headed back to the bus station to take the rest of the journey to Sarajevo, where a taxi driver ripped us off to take us to our accommodation. We stayed in a 'functional' little hostel: small, clean, moderately priced, but kind of sterile and lacking in personality. One of the unanticipated upsides, though, was its proximity to Sarajevo's only vegetarian (well, pescetarian really, but vegan-friendly) restaurant, Karuzo, only two doors down!

Well, that's putting it bluntly.

Karuzo was an experience. It's a small, nautically themed cabin of an establishment, with old-fashioned maps, fishing nets, and compasses adorning every surface. It's run by an idiosyncratic Bosnian celebrity chef, Saša Obučina, who takes a hands-on approach to the food, cooking most of it by himself with perhaps one assistant on hand on any given night. This makes bookings essential, and your meal is likely to be punctuated by a constant string of insistent rebuffs issued to walk-ins, who are told 'I'm sorry, it's not possible.' We didn't have a booking that night, so we were lucky to be seated, but when we returned a few nights later we were witness to a number of hapless would-be patrons baulk at being turned away, to which Saša unapologetically proclaimed that 'This is not a fast food restaurant.' And that it is not. He quite often comes and takes your order himself, and cooks at a glacial pace, ticking off each table's orders one by one, no matter how long you've been waiting. It's fine as long as you know what you're getting yourself into, rather than going in expecting your everyday restaurant.

Til and I loved the food, but I can imagine it's not for everyone. Available from the restaurant are copies of Saša's book, My Healthy Cuisine, which creates a different impression (for me at least) than what we were served up. Despite the omission of meat and eggs and, in my case, dairy, it still manages to be quite quintessentially Bosnian/eastern-European (similar to German, if that's more recognisable): all rich, dense, heavy, chewy, meaty stuff smothered in salty, creamy sauces. As a vegan, that's not a common food experience for me any more, so it was a nice change, but I wouldn't want to eat like that all the time.

Intro to sarajevo

The next morning we headed over to the open-air fresh food markets, also conveniently located right by our hostel, to grab a breakfast of grapes and raspberries to eat in Trg Oslobodjenja (Liberation Square). There we were introduced to the city with a nice little illustration of the peaceful coexistence of radically different cultures for which the city is renowned: a small crowd of old men playing rapid games of supersized chess (see the video at the end for some footage), while several young couples buzzed around the same park, apparently geocaching. Talk about a mixture of modernity and tradition.

The lively markets. More juxtaposition: the grey heads of the fruiterers and their lush prroduce against the bleak, graffiti-covered facade behind them.

Red and green.

Sun and shade: a couple of the numerous friendly stray dogs that occupy the square.

Reminds me of Wollongong.

The centrepiece of Liberation Square.

Srebrenica and the siege

From the square we walked towards the old town and, while checking out the Cathedral on the way, noticed a sign advertising an exhibit of photography and films about the four-year siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica genocide, where over eight-thousand Bosnian men and boys around the town of Srebrenica were massacred by Serbs under General Ratko Mladić. It was, of course, harrowing, but important, we felt, and compelling. It's difficult to comprehend the sheer evil that was going on on such a scale within my own lifetime, and it's chilling to think that in a decade or two we might look back on conflicts and crises that are going on now with the clarity of hindsight and realise that they were just as bad, and that we collectively did nothing to stop it. 

Commemorative statue of Pope John Paul II in front of the cathedral.

A wall at the gallery listing the names of victims.

A suitably grim stairwell down from the gallery.

Sarajevo high and low

Next we just took a long walk around the city, along the river and through the Bašèaršija (the main Arabic marketplace) until dusk, when we walked up to a lookout near the Alifakovac cemetery to eat a picnic dinner and watch the sunset (see the video for some footage).

The main square.

This happened like thirty seconds after I filled my water bottle up out of this tap (see the video).

The coppersmith street in the Bašèaršija.

 Wares for sale. 

One of the city's many mosques, from which multiple calls to prayer can be heard every day.

'Just heading down the shops to pick up some vaj cream.'

Alifakovac cemetery.

The lookout.

Sarajevo at sunset.

Our spread.


Guiding ourselves

On our last full day in the city we decided to take the self-guided audiotour recommended by our hostel. You get a map with a bunch of numbers on all the sights around the city and a mobile phone, then call the number for whichever sights you want to visit, which was pretty cool.

We started off with another breakfast from the fruit markets. I indulged in my old habit of smearing fruit juice into shapes on hard surfaces.

First stop was the town hall, which had to be rebuilt after the war.

We also saw Morića Han, a centuries-old inn that's still thriving.

Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque (see the video for some footage).

Muslims praying.

A cat outside the mosque.

The Sahat Kula (clock tower), also built by Gazi Husrev-Beg. While I was listening to the audioguide explain the significance of the tower, a very well-dressed old man in a suit and hat came up to me and started telling me the same thing the guide had just told me, so I kind of finished what he was saying about it (that it records lunar time) and he looked at me surprised and said, 'Oh, so you know' and walked away. I was just so in travelling mode that I was sort of weirded out that he'd just come up to me out of the blue, and I subconsciously thought he was going to ask me for money or something. And then I felt kind of sad that I'd effectively shut down his attempt at spontaneous human-to-human interaction in favour of a souless audio recording, but it was too late.

Gazi Husrev-Beg's medresa (covered marketplace).

The door to the Synagogue.

Interesting lightshades.

A 'Sarajevo Rose'. Places where a mortar shell hit the road and killed three or more people are commemorated in Sarajevo by being filled in with red resin.

The eternal flame.

We ended the tour in Veliki Park listening to the audioguide entries about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg that triggered World War I. We snacked on the remnants of our picnic from the night before and when we were done we were left with the spongy white centre of the bread loaf, which Tilly can't stand. To freak her out I rolled it into a tight ball and dipped it into the peanut butter, of which Til is also not a fan, but ended up throwing it to the pigeons and sparrows, who had a feeding frenzy for the next ten minutes (see the video).

My bread and peanut butter ball.

The Monument to the Murdered Children of Sarajevo.

The names and birth and death dates of children who died in the war.

 Some disturbing dates. A thirteen-year old, a nine-year-old and an infant under one.

Traditional tea

We finished up our day at the quaint Cajdzinica Dzirlo-Tea House, where another idiosyncratic owner greets you and serves you personally. There's some footage of this in the video at the end of this post.

Across the road: Ermagherd. Berbersherp!


The next day we didn't do much except get our hands on some amazingly delicious vegetarian bureks, which I then proceeded to drop when I very conspicuously tripped over somehow on the way out the door. Five second rule, right? Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I got sick for the second time of the trip right after that ... Whatever, they were totally worth it.

 As we were finishing a small beggar boy I'd seen a few times over our stay came and asked for change, of which we had none. Then he pointed to my half-empty Coke bottle and his mouth, and I thought, 'why not?' Hopefully that made his day.

So long, sarajevo

Savvier to the taxi prices now, we took another one after lunch to the airport for our very brief flight to Ljubljana. The two cities we'd seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina had been everything we'd been promised and more, from the ridiculous beauty of the aforementioned aquamarine rivers and old town in Mostar to the completely individual character of Sarajevo and its fascinating, devastating recent history. I can't recommend the country enough, especially at this precise point in its history. See below for some footage from our trip. Not sure why it vibrates sometimes ...