Bright frescoes inside a church in Trebinje

Bosnia & Herzegovina - Don't Baulk at the Balkans - A Tour of Old Yugoslavia Part 5

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 1st October 2015

Bosnia & Herzegovina

Bosnia & Herzegovina has a complex history that very much defines Bosnia and the relationships of its various constituent parts today. The region was part of the Ottoman Empire but was then subsumed into the Austro-Hungarian empire. Events in Sarajevo, the capital 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. To complicate things even further the population of Bosnia is composed in the main of of three different ethnicities: Serbs (Sprpska), and Croats and Moslems /Bosniaks (Bosnia Herzegovina). Independence 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 8 months over a 4 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.

Trebinje

We cross the border from Montenegro into Bosnia and Herzegovina and continue to Trebinje, a town with roots going back to Ottoman times and longer. The town (surprise, surprise) also ‘boasts numerous interesting churches and monasteries’. The main church, even though we’ve seen so many, is worth a visit for the quality of the interior illumination. There’s also a market square, chock full of honey and cheese, and a famous old Ottoman bridge.

Mostar

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 that 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 parlors) 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. Ice cream is called for.

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