This is the sixth and final installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going. She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city. In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed previous installments you can find them in our archives or here:
There is a scene in the famous movie “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy awakens in a strange and unfamiliar land and says to her dog: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” We had a similar experience as we wrapped up our two-week adventure in Europe, which started in Italy, took us into Slovenia, and then into Croatia. Our final country was so different from any of the others that we visited – definitely different from Croatia (and Kansas!).
When planning the trip, my original hope was that we could make it to six countries during our stay. However, there was too much to see and we did not have as much time as I would have liked to country hop. But I did have one more country up my sleeve to round out the trip.
We started our trip in Venice, Italy, and our second-to-last city was Dubrovnik, which the missus enjoyed quite a bit. According to her, it was her second-favorite place after the incredible Plitvice Lakes National Park. So where to go from Dubrovnik for the last two days of our trip? I booked our last couple of nights in Sarajevo, which is the capital of Croatia’s neighbor, Bosnia & Herzegovina. Technically, we had already been in Bosnia during our trip. Why “technically?” Well, the only way to get from the center of Croatia to Dubrovnik on the coast is to travel through Bosnia. That’s right – the north-south freeway requires about a 15-20 minute detour through Bosnia before re-entering Croatia. So the missus had already been in Bosnia and thought that the brief pass-through would be our only stop there.
As we left Dubrovnik, she halfheartedly tried to get me to say where we were headed. “That way,” I told her, pointing north. After about an hour, we crossed the now-familiar Croatia/Bosnia border detour and soon were back in Croatia again to reconnect to the main freeway. We were not done with Bosnia, though, as about 30 minutes later we came to another Croatia/Bosnia border stop. “Again?” she asked. “How many times are we going to cross into and back from Bosnia?” “It’s the last time,” I assured her.
This time, the crossing was a more formal event. Unlike the “pass-through” crossing where they don’t even stop the car or require documentation, this time we had to show our passports for stamping. About 100 yards later we saw the first sign that Bosnia was going to be different than Croatia: the sign for Bosnia & Herzegovina was written in both the Roman (western) and Cyrillic alphabets.
For my wife, this was very comfortable as the Russian language also uses the Cyrillic alphabet. All navigational and street signs we passed in Bosnia were written in both alphabets.
The second hint came as we passed several mosques on our drive north towards Sarajevo. From my pre-trip research I was aware that there are three main ethnic groups in Bosnia: Serbs (generally of the Orthodox religion), Croats (generally Catholic) and Bosniaks (Muslim). As we drove further north, the prevalence of the Islamic faith in Bosnia became more obvious.
As we were leaving Dubrovnik in Croatia to head to Sarajevo I decided we would stop somewhere along the way for lunch. All of the people we met in Croatia told us that Mostar was a “must stop” destination, so we combined a “must stop” with a lunch stop. As we entered Mostar, the third and perhaps most compelling sign that we were no longer in Croatia became apparent: war damage. Certainly, the 1990’s Balkan war affected Croatia, including several of the places that we visited. In Bosnia, however, the duration, intensity and brutality of the war was on a scale that shocked and saddened us.
A Twitter “friend” of ours had given us the name of a restaurant in Mostar to stop for lunch. Attempting to follow the garbled pronunciations of our Garmin GPS, we made our way through Mostar towards “Stari Grad” – Old Town. From the car window the evidence of war was still visible: buildings with bullet holes in them and destroyed buildings waiting to be rebuilt. Finally, we found a parking space close to where she-Garmin was telling us the restaurant was located.
We stepped out of the car and in a few steps were in the Old Town part of Mostar. Within 50 meters we found the restaurant that we were looking for and we happily plopped down and ordered some water and traditional Bosnian food.
Yummy Bosnian food at TimaIrma in Mostar
In Europe, “old town” really means old: Mostar has been around since the 15th Century and there are structures in the city that remain from that time. Easily the most famous structure in Mostar is its bridge; in fact, “most” in Serbian means bridge. The mostari were the bridge keepers, which gave Mostar its name back in the Ottoman Empire. After lunch we walked through Stari Grad and crossed the old bridge (Stari Most) and checked out the shops in the narrow streets of the old shopping district.
Built in 1566, the bridge stood for 427 years until it was destroyed in 1993 by Croats during the Croat-Bosniak War, one of the many Balkan conflicts that erupted after Yugoslavia fell apart. It was not until 2004 that the bridge was re-opened to allow pedestrians to once again cross the Neretva River from one side of town to the other.
We only stayed in Mostar for a few hours, but the wife was really impressed by the feel of the old town, the bridge, and the connection to the culture of six centuries ago. It was also our first exposure to the importance of the Islamic faith in Bosnia, as we heard the mid-day “call to prayer” being broadcast over the loudspeaker from a local mosque.
From Mostar, we continued driving north until we arrived in Sarajevo, the last stop on our trip. We checked into the Hotel Bristol for two nights in the city that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Or, as our guide the following day would say, “only the second communist city to host an Olympic games.” “And the only one that the United States attended,” I added, since the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. We were tired and hungry and appreciated the personal welcome when we got into our room.
The following morning, we woke up and had breakfast in the lobby of the Hotel Bristol. The previous ten days of our trip, we awoke to beautiful sunshine and blue skies . Our first morning in Sarajevo, there was no sun to be seen, only grey and black clouds. “Rain,” I brilliantly opined. Nevertheless, we decided that we were going to tour the town even if we got wet. After all, when would we get back to Sarajevo again?
My prediction of rain turned out to be wrong, and, unfortunately, optimistic. As I looked out of our hotel room window just before we ventured out, I realized that it was snowing! Here’s a cool video of the view from our hotel window.
Since we don’t see snow often, I didn’t want to drive my trusty VW Golf into Stari Grad (yes, every town seems to have an “Old Town”). Instead, we grabbed a cab and the driver dropped us off at the start of our tour. We spent two delightful hours with a Sarajevo native who took us all around town. Here are the things that we saw and learned:
- Sarajevo is a majority-Muslim city, with about 80% of the residents identifying as Islamic; minority populations include the Serbs (about 4%) and Croats (5%). In the 1991 Census, Muslims made up only half of the population, with Serbs accounting for nearly 30% of the city’s population. The dramatic shift in the population between the 1991 and the 2013 census surveys is almost entirely accounted for by the drastic reduction in the population of Sarajevo’s Serbs, many of whom left during and after the war.
- Even though Sarajevo is majority-Muslim, it defied our expectations of what such a city would look and feel like. Certainly, there were many mosques in town, especially in the Old Town. As we experienced in Mostar, we heard the “call to prayer” multiple times while we were walking around Sarajevo. What surprised us, though, is how modern and contemporary Sarajevo felt, even in the Old Town. Most men and women were dressed in typical European fashions and styles and all of the expected brand stores were represented in the shopping zone. Unlike other Muslim cities, it is less common for women to wear the hijab in Sarajevo. As the wife describes it, Sarajevo is an “East-meets-West” city; in fact, there is a spot in the Old Town that has been created to show the intersection of both East and West.
The pictures above depict a line in the Old Town of Sarajevo that dissects the town’s two personalities – Eastern and Western. On the Eastern side, you can see the mosque and the traditional Ottoman-style stores. On the Western side of the line are the European and American brand stores selling lingerie, sneakers, jeans, dresses and products that would be available in any Western city. While the East-West divide expresses part of the diversity of Sarajevo, there is also an impressive diversity of religion in the city with active houses of worship for four faiths: Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Orthodox.
Within a 500 meter radius in Sarajevo you will find the mosque, synagogue, and churches (Catholic and Orthodox).
- There is excellent food, wine and coffee in Sarajevo (did anyone doubt we would find it?). We got our first taste of the excellent Bosnian food when we were in Mostar; in Sarajevo we ate at several fine restaurants and sampled many different types of dishes. After our Sarajevo city tour on Day 1, we opted for a seafood restaurant just outside of the Old Town.
On our last day in Bosnia, we opted for something with traditional Bosnian food and found a place called Dveri that was mostly full of locals.
Since it was our last day, we decided to select some real Bosnian comfort food.
This fantastic meal was washed down with a carafe of the house Blatina.
At the end of most of our meals, we opted for a traditional Bosnian coffee which is served in a small copper container and poured into a small cup to drink. “Sort of like Turkish coffee,” the missus said the first time we saw it. “We like to call it Bosnian coffee,” the waiter replied. In fairness. though, the coffee is clearly one of the remnants of hundreds of years of Ottoman rule, so calling it “Turkish coffee” is not really incorrect. Just ill-advised.
- Bosnia has an honest-to-goodness wine country! There are vineyards across Bosnia (most in the Herzegovina region) and we drove by thousands of acres of them on our drive up to Sarajevo.
In fact, Mostar is well-known for its production of an indigenous white wine varietal, Zilavka, the most common white wine in Bosnia. We found extensive wine menus at all the restaurants we visited which included not only Bosnian wines but offerings from Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia. On our next trip we will need to include more wineries in our itinerary. We strongly believe that Balkan wines have the depth, complexity, aromatic strength and flavor to compete with wines anywhere.
- War and conflict is very much a part of the legacy of Bosnia in general and Sarajevo in particular. Our city tour started at the spot where a Serb assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, the catalyst that led to the First World War.
After World War II, the Balkan countries were united together into a single country, Yugoslavia, led by Communist leader Marshall Tito. When Tito died in 1980, the glue that held together the six separate Yugoslav republics (Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia) weakened. The rise of nationalist sentiment eventually led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and a series of wars across the Balkan region. The 1990’s conflicts are still very visible in Sarajevo, with buildings that still bear the scars of war and others that are waiting to be rebuilt. For Sarajevo, the destruction came during what is now known as the Siege of Sarajevo, a 1,425 day siege by Serbian forces that created a virtual blockade of the city. Controlling the hills around Sarajevo, Serb forces repeatedly shelled the city (an average of 300 per day for the nearly four-year siege) and snipers preyed on residents as they attempted to move around the besieged city. By the end of the siege, 13,000 people were killed and over 90% of buildings were damaged or destroyed. It was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. These images are played out across Bosnia.
For us, the war stories were all sobering, but none more than the Srebrenica Exhibition in Sarajevo, which tells the tragic and devastating story of the fall of the town and the subsequent massacre of nearly all of the Muslim men and boys in the town. On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces conquered Srebrenica after an extended period shelling the town from the surrounding mountains. As the Serb forces came into the town, many boys and men attempted to flee through the forest, only to be killed by mortar attacks. Those that did not flee were rounded up and murdered and buried in mass graves. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan referred to the Srebrenica event as the worst crime on European soil since World War II, and others have referred to the event as a genocide. In total, tens of thousands of Muslims were killed as a result of “ethnic cleansing” during the Balkan conflicts.
Our two days in Sarajevo were fast but productive; we saw many things and immersed ourselves as much as possible in the rhythm of the city and absorbed as much history as we could. Nevertheless, we need to go back as there is more to see, not just in Sarajevo but also in the rest of Bosnia. Without question, we need to visit the Bosnian wineries that we drove by on our way from Croatia to Sarajevo. Next visit, we would also like to make it to Montenegro and Serbia to learn more about those former Yugoslav republics.
November 6, 2016