Our group tour has now arrived in Bosnia, crossing the border from Kotor in Montenegro. Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the shortest coastlines in Europe - just 12.4 miles. Bosnia. The very word is redolent with emotion, inextricably linked with war reporting on the news in my mind. I'm on a tour of the Balkan States - what was once Yugoslavia.
Bosnia & Herzegovina, The Heart Shaped Land - in a Nutshell
A Brief History of Bosnia & Herzegovina
- Bosnia & Herzegovina has a complex history, which underpins its more recent troubles. The region was part of the Ottoman Empire but was then subsumed into the Austro-Hungarian empire. Events in Sarajevo, (the capital of Bosnia), when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, were pivotal in starting the First World War. When the Second World War ended, Bosnia became part of communist Yugoslavia.
- On the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Bosnia became an independent country in name. However, it is in effect two main federations or proto states, the Republic of Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina, plus the small Brcko district, which also has its own government. To complicate things even further, the population of Bosnia is composed in the main, of three different ethnicities: Serbs (Sprpska), Croats and Moslems /Bosniaks (Bosnia Herzegovinians). Independence, in 1992, led almost immediately to civil war, which lasted until the end of 1995.
- The brokered ‘peace’ ( the Dayton Agreement is very complicated) led to a fascinatingly unique political system. Three presidents, one representing each community, alternate power as Chair for eight months over a four year term. The bureaucracy is incredible - each has their own officers and ministers. And it's mostly a paper exercise, as each state just does their own thing anyway.
Facts and Factoids
- Bosnia and Herzegovina is sometimes known as the “Heart Shaped Land”, because of the country’s slight heart shape. Some struggle to see it. You definitely have to use your imagination.
- The name Bosnia comes from the Indo-European word, which means water. T.he country is full of waterfalls, rivers and lakes
- There are still around 200,000 mines to clear due to the war - be careful.
- In 1984, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics, the first Communist country to do so.
- The small town of Medjugorje is a popular pilgrim site. The Virgin Mary was reported to appear to six local children, here, in 1981.
Or first stop in Bosnia is Trebinje, a town with roots going back to Ottoman times and further. It's the southern most town in Bosnia and it's in the Republic of Srpska. The town (surprise, surprise) ‘boasts numerous interesting churches and monasteries’. The Cathedral Temple of Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord is scenically tucked away, in the centre of the city park, Even though we’ve seen so many, it is worth a visit for the quality of the interior illumination (see above). The frescoes seem to have been fairly recently updated. Nikola Tesla is amongst the faces commemorated.
There’s also a market square, chock full of honey and cheese, and a famous old Ottoman bridge.
Stecci and Waterwheels
Once on the road again, we've stopped to look at the stecci. These are monumental medieval tombstones, of all shapes, commonly scattered in Nekropola or graveyards, on beautiful hillsides. that lie scattered across the landscape of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They're notable for their varied motifs and carvings: mostly relating to the joys of living.
The Trebinje area is also notable for its huge waterwheels, used for irrigation.
Bosnia (or B and H) is not entirely landlocked; to the south it has a narrow coast on the Adriatic Sea, which is about 12 miles long and surrounds the town of Neum. But we're heading north to Mostar, another highlight. Mostar is a beyond picturesque town that is more than five centuries old. It served as an Ottoman frontier town, totally dominated by an even more famous old Turkish bridge that was once the only means connecting the city, over the emerald waters of the Neretva River. It’s easy to wile away several hours wandering around here. There are pavement cafes and roof terraces lining the paths up to and around the bridge, as well as several bazaars (and churches)….Mostar was celebrated for the integration of its architectural styles reflecting the diversity of its community and religions.
Ironic then, that the civil war resulted in the demolition of the bridge and most of the old town. UNESCO raised funds to restore the old town and bridge. The guides say it cost 20 million dollars. We hope it's money well spent. Tensions between the different communities, even now, are palpable.
The Assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand
The road to Sarajevo is a continuing reminder of the conflict. There are tanks, guns, half demolished buildings and bridges (one up ended in the river) and bullet holes. Sarajevo, the end of our journey, doesn’t quite match up to Mostar on the cuteness scale, but it’s still a gorgeous town with plenty to see and lots of history.
The most poignant and famous spot is the plaque which marks the spot where Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. It’s right next to our hotel. And it's sad on two counts. The first because he died (obviously), which was the excuse for The Great War. Though it took a month to get going and was going to happen anyway. The second is that it was a curiously botched attempt.
There were six would be assassins lined up in hiding. The first two missed. The third got the Duchess, Sophie, in the stomach. The fourth threw a bomb, and jumped into the river after taking cyanide, though not enough, so he was sick and lived. Franz Ferdinand decided to go to hospital to visit those injured in the blast, but no-one told his driver (open topped car), who continued on the original planned route. Someone shouted 'Wrong way', so the car reversed, very slowly right past the remaining assassins, and one put a bullet through the Arch-Duke's neck, from five feet. The successful assassin was under 21, so he only got 20 years in jail, where he died of TB.
Sarajevo, the Capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina
There are at least three juxtaposed cities to walk through within Sarajevo, the modern (federal and civic buildings, galleries and museums), the classical (with several churches, synagogues and celebrated ice cream parlours) and the Ottoman. There are beautiful Ottoman mosques, old quarters and the authentic Turkish 'carsija', with its oriental sweet shops, cafes and traditional Bosnian food. Everything from the Baroque to the Bohemian, and even Shrek style fairy castle turrets. Baščaršija Square, with its red tiles roofs and green domes offers the last remaining sebilj (once common kiosk-shaped public fountains) in Sarajevo. There are numerous little squares and alleys, souvenir shops and endless restaurants.
However, there are only a few customers. There is 50% unemployment in Sarajevo. There is also no water in the town, for a substantial part of the day. After some cajoling, our hotel hands out bottled water for us to wash in. It’s not the most satisfying way to finish our tour. My room is small, dark (tiny skylight), noisy and smells so badly of drains that I have to sleep with my head under the sheet. Soothing Ice cream is called for.