Wednesday, May 9, 2007

From West to East

From John:

Dobar dan!
I'm just recovering from the shock of losing an hour's typing because the server in Sarajevo has crashed. Is this symbolic of the shaky hold Bosnia has on the Western World? I had been waxing ( waning?) lyrical on the joys of studying the Balkans for my History mock O level and how a close friend, who shall remain nameless, had obtained a sneak preview of this particular question. And so it was that the map of the nations before the First World War was subjected to intense scrutiny. However, following this latest war, the borders and boundaries seem even more confusing for Bosnia in particular. After close anlysis of the dotted lines we can see that Bosnia and Hercegovina is divided up into two parts: the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, which is mainly Muslim and Croat, and the Republic of Srpska, which is mainly Serb. The dividing line runs through the suburbs of Sarajevo, but before the war the dividing lines were not so clear cut. In the centre there are mosques and Catholic and Orthodox churches, and a synagogue, but it is a predominantly Muslim city and reminds Gayle of Istanbul...............

We had left Korcula on the Marko Polo ferry to Dubrovnik, where we took a room at Mirjana's villa. It was a lovely old house and whilst Mirjana, a devout Catholic, went to Mass each evening, we would religiously cook pasta and sample the local vino in her leafy back garden. The old town there is a well-preserved tourist honey-pot of a UNESCO World Heritage site. As a compulsory stop for Mediterranean cruise ships, and all Croatian tour buses, we had to elbow aside plenty of the grey and wrinkly types just to get an ice cream. As for the superlatives, here goes: the best preserved medieval city walls (a good 3 hour walk with great views over the red-tiled roofs), the second oldest synagogue in Europe and the third oldest pharmacy (run by Franciscan monks). There was also an exhibition about the Serbian bombing of the city during the war.

Despite Mirjana's warning that Kotor, in Montenegro, was little more than a miniature version of Dubrovnik, we still went on an overnight trip. The bus took us the long and picturesque route around to the head of the deepest fjord in southern Europe. At the bus station we were greeted by lots of locals offering rooms. After looking at one sad place we were persuaded by an old woman in Widow's Weeds to take the fold-down beds offered in her living room. I guess we should have been more discerning, but were attracted by the green terrace at the front of the house. When we closed the windows we realised why they'd been open - smokey and beery, what did she get up to each night? - and it was a shock to find the only sink to be in the front garden. The contrast in living standards with Croatia could not have been greater. Mirjana was right, Kotor did feel like a mini-Dubrovnik, right down to the trendy cafes and bars full of Beautiful People. On a warm overcast day we climbed steps to the Fort of Sveti Ivan (Saint John) on the hill above the town. It was a sveti John that reached the top to get impressive views over the mountains and along the fjord. We descended down to a small chapel where I disturbed a sunbathing snake. After 30 seconds of hysterics and running with my hands in the air I was able to compose myself and accompany Gayle the rest of the way back.

After returning to Dubrovnik and spending one last day by the sea, we said goodbye to it and bussed it inland to Mostar. The bus fell quiet as we drove into the town along what had been the frontline of the war, when the Croats and Muslims turned on each other. There are plenty of bombed-out and shot-up buildings that still stand in this part, either as reminders or lack of money to replace, we're not sure. However, there are signs of recovery - the souvenir tourist stalls that clog the cobbled streets of the old town, and the rebuilt Old Bridge teeming with tourists (it was May Day Holidays) watching members of Mostar Diving Club jumping into the river below. The bridge, between the east and west banks of the river running through Mostar, is a symbol of the join of East and West, and now of Croat and Muslim. From what we understand this labelling of people only occurred with the war and did not exist before. Walking around you come across small crowded cemeteries with headstones bearing the same date, and you can see a larger cemetery stretching up the hillside above the town, the headstones all new and white. It is terribly sad.

Inspired by a local tourist brochure that was poorly translated, we decided to set out into the countryside and discover some of the "unavoidable touristic potential domain", in particularly with the hope of meeting "the traditional hostility of the rural people". We visited the Turkish village of Blagaj. Turkish? Well, of course, for it was those purveyors of fine settees, the Ottoman Turks, that brought Islam up through the Balkans. There were plenty of nationals visiting - it felt like Edale on a Bank Holiday - and a busload of young German Turks. There were a couple of traditional houses to visit, a large river emerging straight out of the limestone hillside, and several restaurants where you could quench your thirst and appetite and seek shade under an awning. We escaped the milling throng and climbed up to the old fort guarding the village and then hung around with lots of other locals who seemed to be as unsure as us when the return bus would come. Eventually it did, and it soon filled up. A blind Roma woman and her son got on and sat down behind two boys. Their father told them to move. Then a group of teenagers got on, the boys crowding the aisle. We soon realised that they had started to make comments to the Roma - the little boy was answering back - and there was a lot of laughter with a bullying undertone. We sat in silence. Everyone could hear it and others turned around to look, but no-one told the lads to stop. The Roma woman and boy got off at our stop, and as we stood to get off there was lots of shouting after them, and then once, in English, for our benefit "Dirty stinking gypsies!" At this we both turned in anger and Gayle shouted back at them. The teenagers seemed surprised we didn't share the joke, and it depressed us to think that after all the fighting and ethnic cleansing of the war, the youth here are growing up with the same prejudices as their parents - and we assume the Roma are the lowest in the Pecking Order.

The train ride to Sarajevo was spectacular - following a river through green snow-capped mountains and eventually through a series of switchbacks and tunnels, climbing over a high pass, and on to the capital. The city is spread out east to west along a valley with a "new town" of communist apartment blocks at one end and the old centre with it's narrow streets spreading up the hillside. The restoration after the war seems to have progressed further here, although the grand National Library building still stands boarded up and gutted beside the river. We found the bridge where old Archduke Franz Ferdinand (and his wife, Gayle reminds me) was shot by an anarchist (was he from the Black Hand Gang or the Red Hand Gang? I get it mixed up with a children's TV programme.....), thus triggering the events that led to the First World War. It's not so touristy here, but there were a few backpackers passing through. We declined to go on an Olympics Tour or a War Tour ("THREE wars in ONE century!"). Instead, we sampled the typical Bosnian food, including Burek, which to me has the taste and texture of Scotch pies. Now, I have a poor history with Scotch pies, so I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised when I fell ill. While I lay in bed groaning and running back and forth to the toilet, Gayle explored the town and the possibility of walking in the countryside. ( In the end we didn't - you are advised to take a guide to make sure you don't wander into landmines......). As with all capital cities, accommodation is expensive here, and we struggled to find somewhere half-decent, so we took a quarter-decent room in a house instead. Again, there is a sharp contrast with the economic success of neighbouring Croatia - little wonder the Croats were keen to strike out for independence.

Once I was fully recovered - a state of mind, in Gayle's opinion - we bought our train ticket north to Pecs in Hungary. Armed with our Eastern European phrasebook and currency ready reckoner we venture into pastures new ( or széfely nagy cõrk as they say in Hungary ..........)

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