Europe 2017 (Episode 3): The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo

The trip through the mainland Balkans starts in Dubrovnik. But to get to Dubrovnik we must first leave Bari, in Italy, by ferry. We arrive at the port to find that the ferry is delayed by several hours, apparently. No one is quite sure how long and, like the quintessential Disappearing Man of Isaac Asimov novels, any staff member of Jadrolinija Ferries who could supply useful information is as disappeared as they can be.

Hence we wait in the not very salubrious terminal served by one slightly seedy takeaway that, in common with most of Corsica, from which we have just travelled takes only cash. Light entertainment is served by watching the ferry to Albania which appears to have no timetable, having been loading for appears to be give hours and is still doing so and by also watching the other passengers for our ferry.

Dubrovnik

Periodically an additional Albanian will appear and leisurely make his/her way to the ship. There appears to be no rush. I assist one of them, a young woman with child, who is struggling with her luggage. Unsurprisingly since it turns out since her suitcase weighs more than the average fully loaded semi-trailer. She claims to be carrying clothes. In which case they must be gold lined bras and panties. No damage is done other than about five herniated discs in my back.

The ferry dock cannot be seen from where most people are sitting so we are able to observe metaphorical flocks of sheep in action. About every fifteen minutes  someone will pick up their luggage and head through the doors towards the hypothetical location of the ferry. At this point, and despite there being absolutely no new information or any rationale to their decision to move, at least half of the ferry passengers will pick up their bags and follow. This is the cult/crowd mentality at its best of the sort that leads to mob lynchings, gas chambers and queues for iPhones.

We, meanwhile, are not fooled, as we are with two Kiwis, Helen and Kemp, who of course understand sheep-like behaviour extremely well. They are going to Croatia for a wedding because it always makes sense if you are from NZ to hold your weddings in the farthest corner of Croatia.

On the other hand it gives them (and us) an excuse to drink champagne. Even better it is their champagne. Given that rugby season is coming it is unlikely Australians will be buying champagne any time soon. We also consume the bottle of Corsican mead that I brought on one of the walking trails. This is the best form of travel: random meetings, good conversation, champagne, mead. In this context delays are irrelevant.

For those that have not yet visited Dubrovnik which, judging by the crowds on the main street of the old city, can only be about half a dozen people, Dubrovnik is, daily, like a beautiful dessert placed before a crowd of gluttons. It will survive for seconds before being entirely ruined. It’s beauty is best appreciated in the two hours around dawn – that is before it is effectively destroyed by the descending hordes.

Dubrovnik

Like many other places where tourism has effectively, if not actually, destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg, it is hard to appreciate the real beauty of this ancient city when fighting ones way through the thousands of visitors, not least the hordes that descent ‘en masse’ from cruise ships like some sort of biblical plague.

In the last 20 years or so the population of the old city has plummeted from 5000 to 1000 as the locals are driven out by rising rents, lack of any shops other than cafes, bars, and shops selling un-needed gifts to unthinking travellers. And that’s leaving aside the conversion of almost every available bit of sleeping space to AirBnB.

Dubrovnik

We have two stops in Dubrovnik, one on arrival in Croatia and one on departure. For some reason known only to the Idiot Traveller I have managed, on both occasions, to book AirBnBs at the very highest point of the city just inside the city walls. Thus, several times a day we are required to stagger up about 200 + steps to the top of the city. Bad for both my knee and humour.

These ascents involve a sort of game of chicken with those descending where, at the hot times of day, everyone tries to stay in the sixty centimetres of shade next to the buildings. Fortunately it is only mid thirties while we are there as opposed to the 45ºc which Croatia endures the following week.

Like every couple, Kaylee and I have points of difference in our travelling routines. I like to avoid every market and shop as if they were sources of the Black Death whereas, for Kaylee, shopping and buying is one of the pleasures of travel. It seems that every second shop sells potential gifts for friends and relatives and our trip is punctuated by approximately 652 visits to inspect potential purchases.

This difference has been exacerbated, on this trip, by the “imminent” arrival of the first MacKenzie grandchild. As a result all of Europe has been scoured for baby clothes and gifts even though “imminent” in this case means at least six months away.

We also differ on beaches and driving speeds. Kaylee feels, for whatever bizarre reason, that, since I almost killed her by rolling her Subaru station wagon some years ago, I should restrain myself from acting like Ayrton Senna on Croatia’s windy roads. Perhaps justifiably, since Senna is dead.

Night time Dubrovnik

I also feel that any beach without waves or somewhere to kayak, dive etc is not a real beach, whereas she is quite happy to be on any beach with sun and water. She is also unsupportive of puns, word plays or interesting statistical analyses, all things which any reasonable partner should be prepared to endure until death do us part. I on the other hand, being inestimably tolerant, put up with the 652 gift shop visits with good humour and patience. Such is life.

Beyond these differences we travel reasonably amicably following the itinerary which I, as resident travel agent, have picked out. Croatia is the third country on our five country European tour and, like most places, if you can get away from peak periods and peak locations, it is beautiful and relatively deserted.

Dubrovnik in the morning and at night, after most people have either not yet got up or have already gone to bed, is a magical town of tiny streets, magnificent old buildings and breeze-kissed rock rock platforms perched above the Adriatic.

Dubrovnik

Travelling through the Balkans and Turkey is like a primer in life. Sometimes it seems a hard and brutal road if you look at the history, but, at the same time one is surrounded by ineffable beauty and acts of compassion. To know and understand the history of this region is to understand the total and utter failure of the concept leadership as defined by western democracy and, more generally, humans.

Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Turkey, Armenia, Kosovo, Montenegro. These are lands swept by repeated genocides. An eye for an eye makes us all blind. So far as I can tell only the Bosnian Muslims are largely innocent, in recent times. Even so there was at least one massacre of Serbians by Bosnian troops during the siege of Sarajevo.

The Greeks murdered the Turks, the Turks the Greeks, The Armenians murdered the Kurds and Turks and vice versa. The Croats murdered the Serbians and the Bosnians. The Serbians murdered the Croats and Bosnians. And on and on.

Unlike the Jewish holocaust, but like the Rwandan, Nigerian, Syrian and other genocides, these are repeated mass murders largely already forgotten. In Srebrenica alone the Serbians murdered 31000 people. Or at least there have been 8000 bodies recovered but another 23,000 Muslims remain unaccounted for 25 years after the war ended.

These were not casualties of war but victims of a brutal civilian ethnic cleansing where the Serbs executed almost every last able bodied Muslim male they could get hold off. Those that fled to the mountains were also hunted and murdered wherever possible. In total more than 100,000 people died in the war.

Our journey, in the Balkans starts in Dubrovnik, follows the bus route to Mostar in Herzegovina and wends its way onto Sarajevo in Bosnia also by bus. As I travel I read Rose of Sarajevo and Birds without Wings, both historical novels that document the sweep of history of 40 years of massacres during the death throes of the Ottoman Empire and through to the civil war in Bosnia. An un-ending tapestry of blood and brutality.

En route Mostar to Sarajevo

Each nation – one cannot say ethnic group because all these nations are composed largely of South Slavs – Yugoslavia means South Slavia – document carefully the atrocities committed by others against them but ignore totally the identical genocidal fury they unleashed at other times, in return.

Thus we find ourselves in the old fort above Dubrovnik where, in 1991-2, a handful of ill-equipped Croats held out against the entire remnants of the old Yugoslavian army, navy and airforce (the latter two of which the Croats had none). The Serbs, in defiance, of world opinion and seemingly out a spite that achieved almost nothing, proceeded to pummel world heritage listed Dubrovnik reducing large parts to rubble.

Here the Croats have created a museum commemorating that resistance and documenting the brutality of the Serb invaders. There is no mention, of course, of either the genocidal slaughter by the Nazi backed Ustashe Croat fascists during World War 2 nor of the revenge slaughter and expulsion of Serbs, in 1995, after the Croats had rebuilt their own army.

Mostar War Damage, the old town and old bridge

From Dubrovnik we head north and east to Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia Herzegovina (The name Herzegovina means “duke’s land”, referring to the medieval duchy of Stjepan Vukčić Kosača who took title “Herzeg of Saint Sava”. Herceg is derived from the German title Herzog).

We travel from Dubrovnik to Mostar by bus mainly because in the aftermath of the war many of the train routes connecting Bosnia to Croatia and Serbia no longer operate and we are deposited at a typically ugly bus station – nowhere in Eastern Europe is immune from the plague of soviet era architecture and the descendants of that architectural style.

From here we are fleeced double the normal charge for our taxi ride from our bus station to our AirBnB. The same taxi driver offers to take us on a tour of the local area at a price that we later find is as inflated as buying smashed avocado in eastern Sydney. This is the sort of price that the Idiot Traveler would pay without checking.

But as usual we are smart and fail to take up his offer out of sheer inertia. The route to the AirBnB takes us through Mostar’s civil war front line where the Croat leaders having betrayed the Bosnians, with whom they were formerly in alliance, sent their troops to try and create a greater Croatia from stolen Bosnian land.

Mostar

Mostar is an odd city. In many ways it is nothing special – much of the city is just a pretty ordinary modern urban centre. The old city, the part for which most people visit, is a tiny part of Mostar, just a street or three wide and a few hundred metres long. There are genuinely old parts that survived largely undamaged but significant parts were entirely reconstructed after the damage of the Balkans war and many buildings remain as ruins, or are full of bullet holes.

Those few streets are an archetypal tourist trap of market shops and restaurants perched above the river selling a mixture of everything from genuinely gorgeous art pieces through to junk. The famous old bridge itself is not, of course, old having been famously, and deliberately, destroyed by the Croatians during the war.

Mostar

But despite all that one cannot but be struck by the sublime juxtaposition of the old city and bridge perched above the deep green Neretva River. Mostar is named after the ‘mostari’ (the bridge keepers). We are fortunate to have one of the best AirBnBs in Mostar with a stunning view of the bridge, a breakfast costing $5 that would cost $20 in Australia and hosts who are friendly and who also double as our tour guides to the areas around Mostar.

There are five mosques and two churches visible from the balcony a reflection of the diversity that means Bosnia has one of the world’s most complicated political systems reflecting the disparate political ambitions of Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats – something that further exacerbates an economic situation that has led to 27% unemployment including youth unemployment of 66%.

From Mostar we move onto Sarajevo arriving after a circuitous bus trip through the spectacular mountain scenery and gorges surrounding the Neretva River.

We would have preferred to go by train as the train journey is reputed to be scenically one of the best in Europe but for reasons best know to Bosnian railways the line, which re-opened in July, only has two trains a day. The first of these requires you to get up at about 5 am, or some similar ungodly hour, and the second, and last, of which deposits you in Sarajevo in the middle of the night. No one, apparently, wants to travel at any civilised time of day.

We find our AirBnB is within spitting distance of old Sarajevo. In common with Mostar much of the old and a great part of modern Sarajevo had to be rebuilt having been shelled repeatedly by the Serbs, who controlled all the hills surrounding Sarajevo and mounted a siege of the town.

Reports indicated an average of approximately 329 shell impacts per day during the course of the siege, with a maximum of 3,777 on 22 July 1993.[6] This urbicide [6] Among buildings targeted and destroyed were hospitals and medical complexes, media and communication centres, industrial complexes, government buildings and military and UN facilities.

Sarajevo: Despite the bloody war & graves, still multicultural

The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. After being initially besieged by the forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army, Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 (1,425 days) during the Bosnian War.

The siege lasted three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad.[4].

More than 10,000 people died during that time and for much of the war the only access in and out of the city was via a 1.6 metre high tunnel dug by Sarajevans under the airport which was controlled by the UN. All Bosnian arms supplies came in and out of the city by this route. The siege was effectively ended by NATO intervention in 1994/5.

Sarajevo

Although Sarajevo was besieged by the Serbs and the city was divided into areas controlled by Serbs and others controlled by the Bosnian forces the population of Sarajevo under siege was a mixture and Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks and all fought together in the Bosnian armed forces.

Today Sarajevo remains a city which is proud of its continuing multicultural heritage and the city is dotted with signs proclaiming this, as well as with a multitude of cemeteries where the war dead were buried including the famous grave of the Bosnian ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Admira Ismić and Boško Brkić, a mixed Bosnian-Serbian couple who tried to cross the lines and were killed by sniper fire.

They became a symbol of the suffering in the city but it is unknown from which side the snipers opened fire . Even so, in addition to the thousands of refugees who left the city, many Sarajevo Serbs left for the Republika Srpska, which is a semi-autonomous part of Bosnia. As a result the percentage of Serbs in Sarajevo decreased from more than 30% in 1991 to slightly over 10% in 2002.

Sarajevo

The Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo (RDC) found that the siege left a total of 13,952 people dead: 9,429 Bosniaks, 3,573 Serbs, 810 Croats and 140 others. Of these, 6,137 were ARBiH soldiers and 2,241 were soldiers fighting either for the JNA (former Yugoslav army) or the VRS (Serbian militia). Of the ARBiH soldiers killed, 235 were Serbs, 328 were Croats and the rest were Bosniaks.

Sixty percent of all people killed in Sarajevo during the siege were soldiers. In particular, 44 percent of all fatalities were ARBiH personnel. A total of 5,434 civilians were killed during the siege, including 3,855 Bosniaks, 1,097 Serbs and 482 Croats. More than 66 percent of those killed during the siege were Bosniaks, 25.6 percent were Serbs, 5.8 percent were Croats and 1 percent were others.

Of the estimated 65,000 to 80,000 children in the city, at least 40% had been directly shot at by snipers; 51% had seen someone killed; 39% had seen one or more family members killed; 19% had witnessed a massacre; 48% had their home occupied by someone else; 73% had their home attacked or shelled; and 89% had lived in underground shelters.

The tunnel that saved Sarajevo and winter Olympic ruins destroyed by the Serbs

Today the old city of Sarajevo has been largely restored and provides a traffic-free pedestrian enclave of shops, churches, mosques and museums which reflect the remaining diversity of the city.

The museums, displays and ‘siege tours’ provide a salutary exposition of the futility of religious and sectarian violence as well as the human potential for both brutality and for overcoming the hatred of war.

Sarajevo also provides a reminder of the most futile and bloody of human wars, World War 1 which started as a result of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian extremist and act that is marked by the plaque on the corner of Zelenih Berentki St.

This post is the third in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on the links below:

Dubrovnik

Mostar

Sarajevo

4 thoughts on “Europe 2017 (Episode 3): The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo

Add yours

  1. A friend and I followed a similar route this summer. Flew into Dubrovnik — stayed at and Airbnb OUTSIDE the Old City, but vowed that next time I would stay in, because I fell in love with all those steps. Bus to Mostar. Train from Mostar to Sarajevo — yes, we got up at an ungodly hour, and then had the misfortune to sit on the WRONG side of the train (the side that had far less scenic views). From Sarajevo, we went by car about 4 hours North to a city called Gradacac. I fell in love with the Balkans on that trip. Each city was beautiful and sad and rich in history.

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    1. Hi Sally, yes a long and sad history. if you haven’t read it you might like to read Rose of Sarajevo by Ayse Kulin. I’m heading back to that area later this year/early this year. I also picked up one of Louis de Bernières books – Birds without wings. I loved that historical novel and it gives a great overview of the years around the fall of the Ottomans. I loved your blog on why Hot Dogs and Marmalade. My Mum turns 90 in January but fortunately is still in good health. You might like this I wrote after last visiting her: https://www.dropbox.com/s/9swi13igot26rr2/The%20ebb%20of%20life.doc?dl=0

      Ciao
      Chris

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      1. Thanks for the book recommendations. I’ll definitely check them out. Since visiting, I have an almost insatiable appetite for all things Balkans.

        And your poem is so lovely and so true. Thank you for sharing it with me.

        Sally

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  2. Archduke Ferdinand of Australia !! Did you put that there to see if we got to the end of it? Enjoyable – is that the right word? – reading. When the war – the last one – was on I came across Misha Glennie (or Glenny) book.. he was Guardian journo there.. and I think he had a ‘yugoslav’ background.. don’t know which bit.. bit it was such an insight into the history. It would still be around and relevant I would think. Also.. a good story.. my mum had a serbian hairdresser.. tho she said she was Asutralian.. and asked her about the Balkans war. She said… thank goodness she came to Australia and while her parents raved on about this and that.. she said she, and she felt her generation, has moved on.. those past atrocities, from her perspective, were past. And she kept telling her parents this.. you are Australian now.. time for new ways.

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