Travel in Bosnia & The Balkans Where War Is Not A Distant Memory

Travel in Bosnia & The Balkans Where War Is Not A Distant Memory

Leaving Kotor, Montenegro after a four-hour drive that takes six because of four border crossings (entering Croatia, entering Bosnia, entering Croatia, entering Bosnia), we pull up to an impressively sized Bosnia bus station for Mostar, a city of *** people. The two friends I made at the Kotor bus station have a driver waiting to pick them up. The directions to my hostel were ambiguous, “a two-minute walk from the bus and train station. For further directions, contact us” so I asked the driver of their hostel whether he knew where it was. “Whoa ho!”, he exclaimed, like a drunken pirate, “That’s my neighbor! Come along, come along, I’ll drop you!”. We piled into his worn minivan, squeezing in next to a baby seat in the backseat. He put then key in the ignition and turned up the tunes, “I am from Bosnia, take me to America”, the singer jauntily begged, in a Fiddler-on-the-roof-esque animated plea. The driver took a moment to make the car dance to the beat, pounding on the brakes to match the song’s staccato rhythm. Then he tore out the parking lot full-speed, just to break at the sharp corner with a dilapidated, bullet-hole covered building two feet in front of us.

Bullet-holed, bombed-out building in Mostar, Bosnia

Bullet-holed, bombed-out building in Mostar, Bosnia

The minivan’s engines roared and it looked like we were going to crash into another concrete wall then he stopped again suddenly and inch his way perpendicularly down the claustrophobic, constricted, dimly lit street. He presses heavy on the accelerator again, stops one second later and turns up the song again to an eardrum bursting volume, enough to wake the whole neighborhood. The weathered, scraggly owner of my hostel stumbles down a dark path, “What the hell?” and kind of, dubiously ventures off in the direction of the hostel, which is just a few meters away but its entry is unclear. I follow and plop my bag in the middle of the kitchen where the hostel’s occupants are busy cooking a Korean feast. The grizzly man I followed pointed to a bearded man, supervising the cooking while perched on a barrel, “he’s the boss. Check in with him”. I speak slowly, “I have a booking. One night”. The bearded man looks at me in silence and after a few moments admits, “I’m not the boss. Not sure why he thinks I am”. Meanwhile, Mr. “What the hell?” Grizzly Beard is pouring me welcome shots of homemade raki, another relic of Ottoman occupation. “The rules here are easy to learn. There are no rules. Have fun. We are a family. The only rule is have a good time and stay as long as you like”. He vaguely gestures to the sleeping area, disappears, reappears and orients me to the place in a three-part tour, split into short spurts of random information, mostly centered around having a good time and being part of the family. “Take Mr. Businessman for example,” wiggling his arms in the direction of a Korean guy in a flannel shirt and gold-wire glasses, “He said he would stay one night. And he’s stayed four. And counting! You need food? I’ll make you food. Well, just come to the feast! I can’t eat… too much coffee and cigarettes but it will be delicious, I promise you. Welcome to the family!”.

I spent a little time chatting with my new “family members”, three Koreans (who didn’t know each other) and a couple Americans, who were all shooting advice back and forth about travel in Bosnia and Balkans that they came from and planned to see… Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo… everyone had approached these places from slightly different directions and for varying lengths of time. After handing over my wrinkly map of Kotor and its key attractions to a guy from Maryland, I waved goodbye and met 18-year-old Toni, a Croatian born and raised in Mostar. As a young guy in a country where people don’t have much money, he hadn’t traveled much, except for an annual summer trip to visit family in Northeast Croatia. But, as a video gamer and metal music lover, he was obsessed with all things Asian and Scandinavian and he was firing questions at me about all the places I’ve been.

Mostar, Bosnia at night

Old Town Mostar, Bosnia at night

After fielding some of his inquiries, I was able to get some information about life in his country, which echoed many things I had read and heard from a Bosnian I met in Montenegro. I told him about my warm welcome here and that I read that Bosnians were the fourth most hospitable people worldwide. “Yes, people from Bosnia are nice to foreigners and tourists but they aren’t nice to each other. Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Christians… they don’t get along. The war is over but people still get in fights, especially when it comes to football. I’m from the West side, the newer side with its own football club. If there’s a picture of me at the game, cheering for my team, I could get beat up from someone on the other side”. I nodded, sad and sympathetic, since I heard this exact same sentiment from several others who grew up around here.
The dreary streets exaggerated this gloomy feeling. From what I’ve gathered from reading two books (The Ministry of Pain by a displaced Croatian living in the Netherlands and Entangled in Yugoslavia by a Brit in Serbia) about the break-up of Yugoslavia and talking to several Croatians and Bosnians, most people claim the war was stupid and illogical. Generally speaking, Slovenia got their independence from Yugoslavia first relatively easily but when Croatia wanted independence too, since they were disproportionately contributing to the wealth of Serbia who mostly controlled Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia didn’t let them go so easily. And Bosnia was stuck in the middle and took the brunt of the beating, especially in Mostar. People seem split on whether life was better before or after Yugoslavian rule. Under socialism, most everyone had a house, car and enough money for a summer on the coast. These goals were mostly accomplished but through unrealistic economic planning and heavy foreign borrowing under Tito, whose loans, the now independent countries have inherited. In weird ways, the divisions between people seem to have healed. Croats can go to Serbia without problems but when Serbs are unwelcome in Croatia, since invaded and left destruction during the war. My Croatian friends tell tales of Serbian cars, even today, whose tires were slashed in Croatian parking lots when they were left unattended.

Croatian War Museum.  Photo courtesy of Jerry Gunner.

War Museum in construction in Karlovac, Croatia. Photo courtesy of Jerry Gunner.

The economies of these countries still haven’t recovered and attempts are being made to raise revenue through tourism, which has impaired other kinds of industry since beautifying rivers means shutting down factories that once used the water sources during Yugoslavian reign. In Croatia, especially near Karlovac, and Bosnia, you can very visibly see remnants from the war, with bullet holes peppering the exterior of houses and public buildings as well as bombed out ruins. The Croatian government has financed remodeling to erase traces of war on main roads, especially since tourists pass these places on the way to the coast and Plitvice National Park, but some residents refuse to remodel and erase memories of the time when they lost fathers, brothers and sons. In Karlovac, Croatia, you will pass tanks and a fighter plane on the side of the road, near a crumbling, demolished, bombed-out building. These artifacts are the beginning of a war museum that the government has been trying to build for the past seventeen years but doesn’t have the funding to finish. In this half-completed state, people from the surrounding neighborhoods just hang-out here to drink coffee, walk their dogs, enjoy the sunshine and a reminder of how lucky they are to be living in a time where there is war no more. In general, the lack of opportunities caused coffee-drinking to be the national occupation of most of the Balkan’s occupants. Not for a caffeine kick to get you energized for a day at work but as a morning mission to make the sludge-like Turkish coffee last as long as possible. I received multiple warnings that an invitation to have a coffee in these countries requires at least two hours.
It starts to drizzle and Toni and I enter the slippery stone streets of Old Town Mostar. We pass some dimly lit mosques, which don’t appear to have much of a practical use, and cozy stone houses kind of huddled together and connected by bridges, big and small, over the river.

Stari Most in Mostar, Bosnia... looks deceptively pretty in the daylight considering all the wars and battles that have been fought around here.

Stari Most in Mostar, Bosnia… looks deceptively pretty in the daylight considering all the wars and battles that have been fought around here.

We cross the river on Stari Most, Mostar’s most famous attraction, the Old Bridge. The initial bridge was built 1566, a acutely arched “humpback” bridge that once transported Ottoman soldiers, Nazi tanks. In the height of the warfare in 1993, it was demolished, and not completely reconstructed until 2004. Today, the bridge ends in a reminder “Do Not Forget 1993”. And it wasn’t until sunrise the next day that I really got to explore the town and the graveyards but its obvious that in this town, 1993 is a year that’s impossible to forget. In the small cemetery outside the Karadjoz-bey Mosque, almost every gravestone displays that year as the one when the war ended lives too soon.
I think you (my readers) can tell by the way I’ve written this entry that these countries have tugged at my heartstrings and inspired me in a way that most of the other places I’ve been on this trip have failed to do.

Scenery on the drive from Mostar to Sarajevo, Bosnia

Scenery on the drive from Mostar to Sarajevo, Bosnia

The Balkans are filled with exceptional nature, beautiful beaches and a refreshing lack of Western chain restaurants so yes, they can be a good carefree place to crash for the summer. But these countries have a recent reality of violence and destruction that won’t be erased from the older people, even when the governments have money to fix things up. As a visitor, I think it’s important to recognize and honor that. Spend some time in graveyards looking at stones where half the cemetery died between 1992-1996. It’s hard to receive such warm-hearted hospitality in Bosnia, since you see what capacities humans have for love, and they would rather pour out this generosity on a stranger than their neighbors. I don’t know how foreigners can inspire ex-Yugoslavians to get over their difficulties with each other but it would be nice if this happened.

Song of the Moment: Miss Sarajevo– U2 & Luciano Pavarotti

If YOU go to the Balkans: Don’t just experience the beautiful parts blindly. Try to learn about the history of the area, even when it’s hard to hear. Since these countries are trying to make tourism a big part of their income, it’s pretty easy to find wifi and English-speakers in the main squares and sightseeing areas. The roads are paved but often just one lane and winding and therefore, places that look close together on a map take longer than expected to get to, especially if you are taking public transportation. The main cities in these areas don’t take long to explore but the views along the highways are positively breathtaking so renting a car is undeniably the best way to visit. Since its unfortunately not an option for me, I was lucky to find a rideshare through blablacar so I could make some stops along the way but rideshares are rather hard to find in places like this. Besides Montenegro, all countries have their own currency (and you’ll get slightly better rates if they use it), but euros are accepted in the main parts. I found Bosnia to be the nicest locals, best food (even though all these areas make similar dishes, in Bosnia, they taste infinitely better for whatever reason), cheapest and most interesting (with a heavy Ottoman influence). Out of Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia, Montenegro was least affected by the war and has a better economy because of yachting and trade going back to the Venetian empire. So if you want to visit a place without bullet holes, that’s your best bet, and Kotor, “the new Dubrovnik” is definitely a place worth stopping. I also visited in the off-season (first week of November), which has both benefits and drawbacks. Especially in Budva, Montenegro, hostel prices were cut in half so I paid 6 euros a night to have a 4-bed hostel for myself. It’s nice visiting tourist attractions without huge summer crowds but your options for restaurants, tours and services are also significantly limited since they close for the winter or don’t run without enough interest.

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