It seemed like a very good idea at the time. No, it actually was a very good idea and the events laboriously documented here made it even better than was intended.
If you’d suggested to me on January 1, 2017, that I would perhaps find myself in the Balkans – most particularly in Bosnia – in mid-2017, I would have scoffed at you, or at the very least, treated the suggestion with great and considered scepticism.
And yet, here I was in the first week of June propelling a VW Passat towards the Croatian-Bosnian border with both a TomTom in the car and a Google map on the phone to guide me to Sarajevo – and as my only company. (We got to know each other). Google was optimistic and showed a potentially stunning route via the border crossing at Kamensko and then south of the Buško Blato lake towards Sarajevo, with some alpine scenery it seemed from the terrain map – some 4 hours and 3 minutes. That worked.
Brigid had a conference at a big hotel just south of Split so I dropped her there and turned east towards the Hotel Bristol in Sarajevo. I was excited. Very much so.
Before I jumped onto the motorway near Split and wound up into the massive grey rocky range that dominates the Dalmatian coast, I punched the Sarajevo hotel into the TomTom. No luck, so I added the street. Nope. Okay, I put downtown Sarajevo (I had no idea how big it is but figured that I could easily Google or ask my way to the hotel) and that worked well – except the route offered was completely different to the one Google had proffered up, traversing the rocky hills and heading inland near Mostar. I wanted the lake and the northern hill country so I asked for another option. After thinking for a moment TomTom (let’s just call him Tom) gave me another northern route which looked much like the one the lady from Google (we will call her Mabel) liked so I clicked go and off we went up the hill with the solid blue Adriatic spilling out on a gorgeous early-summer day behind me.
It seemed so painless and so it was until Tom urgently told me to turn right in 500m. In 500 metres there was a road but it was blocked and clearly derelict. Tom then revised the time to 6 hours and thirty minutes. Yikes! I had no desire to wander lost into an alien city in the dark, especially given that the seaside sky had started to go shades of threatening grey as we left the coast. I stabbed the Google map with some urgency and Mabel said next right and 3 hours and 30 minutes. Much better, so I veered right off the highway as instructed. Turn right again I was told so I did, except the road I was instructed to use was more like a very narrow lane. Pretty as can be, but a lane nevertheless with no verge, patchy seal and vast corn filled fields on each side that looked a little like the ones in the aeroplane chase from Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. I half expected a panicked Croatian Cary Grant to run out in front of the car.
Tom made an urgent ‘turn around when you can’ noise, but I decided that he had already marked up substantial demerit points with the non-road so Mabel had the stronger hand and I would follow the narrow lane. It wound on and narrowed more, so I turned on the radio for comfort. I had no idea at all where I was and the radio was now playing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. What’s the worse that could happen I mused to myself? Tom’s screen then went kinda shaky and the arrow pointed right – into the fields.
Twenty minutes on Mabel sparked up and told me to turn left at the intersection, which I did, and we were back on a bigger road, rather empty but a decent enough road with proper signs and such. One of the signs said Kamensko in 20km so Mabel had come though. As I was thinking that Tom came back to life and told me to follow the road. I was, thanks but no thanks, Tom. However, two maps are better than one and I was aware that my pan-European KeepGo Sim card would die in Bosnia, something hopefully resolved by the fact that Google (not Mabel) had told me there was a) a shop that sold Sim cards across the border, and b) an ATM for Bosnia Marks as Croatian Kuna are not accepted in Bosnia.
The border was easy. I was warned before that sometimes the Bosnians are problematic with rental cars from Croatia but I had no issues and was straight through looking for that phone shop and ATM. There was a long shed with signs so I stopped and went in. No shop was evident, nor an ATM, instead there was a row of offices, signs in Bosnian, which seemed to sell road services – trucking, that sort of thing. One door looked more hopeful than the rest, so pushed it nervously open: a dozen truck drivers all eating something that looked like baked beans on toast stared back at me. I asked the girl behind the counter, “Sim card? ATM?” Closed,” she shook her head. “Gone”. Oh damn. I asked for the toilet and she said I needed to buy something to use it. Water? She said that was free and I needed to buy something. I bought a Coke and had to pay with a couple of Euro coins I’d brought along as hopeful security. She gave me the key to the loo. I was given a free water too.
Tom had lost all his map detail but still pointed the way. Mabel had lost her data but still had the map stored offline so off I went. We reached a junction and Tom said go left and 4 hours, Mabel said go right and 2 and a half. Right we went – and the road narrowed almost immediately, but not to worry as it was still passable, well constructed and swung pleasurably around Bosnia’s softly rising hills and looked like it was heading in the right direction. Before long I found myself beside the vast Buško Blato, a man-made waterway created by Tito’s Yugoslavia for power generation. As I do when next the similar lakes in New Zealand’s South Island, I wondered somewhat pessimistically how many lives had been destroyed by relocation for the greater good here. Still, it was very lovely and stretched to the blurred far-horizon, ominously now shrouded in growing clouds. The old man on the side of the road, who looked like he’d survived Tito’s trauma, said it was filled with Prussian Pike. I have no idea what those are but they seemed to be a long way from home.
I drove on and the road gracefully moved further up into the hills. I drove some 100km at a guess and the road disappeared somewhat. There was still a road but it was less distinctly separated from the surrounding fields. Eventually, the seal ran out, but Mabel was still sounding confident so I carried on. Tom was just bemused by it all and his arrow moved now and then before turning into a serious of confused dots. I decided he was soft and Mabel was anointed by me as the necessary oracle. As we climbed I was increasingly worried that Mabel’s memory would expire. Coupled with that was the realisation that the battery in my phone was – brutally – fucked. It had become steadily less reliable in Croatia in recent days but now it was losing 1% every few minutes. I plugged it into the wee-power bank I always carried and that slowed the drain, it was now losing 1% every 5 minutes or so. I had a spare phone but I knew the map was not going to work on that.
The upside was that there was just the one road (or something aspiring to be a road) and I knew – or hoped – that sooner or later I’d see a sign that said ‘Sarajevo X km”.
I turned a corner and there it was. Not the sign but amongst all the cows and endless stone walls was something that looked like a service centre: gas station, shop, café and the rest. Sim cards and ATM machines live in places like that. I stopped and parked, then sheepishly walked in, feeling very much like “Mac” MacIntyre from Local Hero. Ther was a short queue so I joined it. I smiled and stood until I was at the front. I think I stood out. “Do you have a Sim card?” I asked in an odd pidgin patois. The guy with small eyes and an apron looked at me and looked like I’d arrived in a Police Box. A young girl came over and said in far better English than my Bosnian, “Can I help?” I explained. There were no ATMs for a very long way I was made to understand. They did, however, have a Sim card. 5 Marks and they took Visa. Yippee.
I got back in the VW happy that I’d achieved one of my short-term aims, and had a Sim card. I opened the packet and out fell a card – a very big one. Not the nano my phones needed, nor the earlier micro-Sim, but the old style mega-Sim (which was actually called a Mini Sim but it wasn’t at all), the sort that had been phased out the best part of a decade back in most places, just not Mandino Selo in Bosnia.
I gave up – there was no point in going back so I pointed the car at the tar seal, grateful that there was some again, and headed onwards. The seal soon evaporated into dusty gravel and the road narrowed even more as I headed higher and higher up a steep mountainside. Soon the road was little wider than the car and I could see distant snow above. The gravel had become bumpy earth. There was hefty drop to my right with the odd obvious wash-out – and a bus came around the corner. We stopped and looked at each other. My place was on the cliff-side but I quickly understood that he knew this road and I didn’t so I went as far to the left as I could, two wheels up the side of the slope and I hoped he’d accept that. He seemed to and he accelerated towards me, with a cheery smile and wave. He accelerated so heavily in fact, that he went past me downhill at some probably unneeded speed and left a hefty brown cloud of damp dust. I thought about a photo but that quickly passed as I was aware that any of this fine mulch entering the car or the camera would be both unpleasant and destructive. I sat and pondered whether Google should – in certain Balkan countries – offer a navigation option, much as they do with toll roads, allowing one to avoid alpine goat tracks.
It was stunning though, with the lush valleys spilling out to green rivers and even greener lakes below, and repeatedly I stopped the car just to look at it and snap a photo or three.
Eventually, the goat track wended its determined way onto a plateau and the seal returned. Mabel sounded confident and told me I needed to turn left in 25km. I would, I hoped, find a better quality pathway to the Bosnia capital. Tom seemed to be sulking. The plateau was dotted sparsely with livestock, distant farmhouses and a couple of deserted villages that seemed to be, if I understood the signs, ski resorts. There be snow here much of the year I guessed. Just no Sim cards nor ATMs.
The gravel returned as I left the plateau but we were level now and there were more lakes, some with small moored boats and the odd person. A tall young Bosnian farmer rode past me on his motorbike – standing on it – in a bright orange, very skintight jumpsuit with a helmet strapped to the top of his head covered in an equally orange afro. He waved, I waved back graciously – he was likely wondering where I had come from and I was wondering much the same about him. He was, I suspected, the only gay in the village. Five minutes later he came back in the other direction, still standing, still waving.
There were cemeteries at regular intervals and it didn’t hit me until a little later what these meant, beyond the normal life attrition they usually signify. A shop sold me another bottle of water, once again taking a Euro coin (the price had halved), but they too had no Sim card and no ATM – and Mabel’s gas was down to 41% on the phone. I pushed on into the next set of hills, turning left as I was told to do by Mabel. Tom seemed to have somehow worked out where I was and pointed helpfully along the road I was already using. Cheers mate.
The winding road was better – much – and there were more cemeteries so I stopped to look – the graves all had death dates between 1992 and 1996. Oh. There were now mosques as well, all with white marble markers with the same date range. A lone cross looked sadly down a misted valley and you quickly understood that the agonies of the nineties had entered every village and home.
Finally, after Mabel had firmly ordered a few more left and rights I found myself on a large motorway, mostly deserted, which used long tunnels to cut through the remaining hills until Sarajevo’s valley appeared.
The Hotel Bristol is the not the only hotel in the city by any means but it may be the closest thing you’ll get to a modern hotel with facilities. Sadly, one of those facilities is not a bar – the owner is devoutly Muslim and not one, it would appear, who lets fiscal considerations outweigh his beliefs – and I really needed a post goat-track drink (and a Sim card – still – I’d found an ATM on the outskirts) urgently. So I headed out. Sim cards were easy and plentiful it seemed, and $5 looked like it would give me all the data I needed for 3 days.
I decided to hunt for a bar I’d had recommended – local beers and decent food. Sarajevo is both lovely and quite depressingly drab depending on which way you turn at an intersection. It can be both at the same time too. You wander a street surrounded by formless grey functional blocks with banks, shuttered travel agencies and large appliance marts then a cute 1950s era tram rumbles past and hip students and laughing Muslim families get off and it all feels rather different for that moment or two until they disappear and you are back with the washing machine store for company. It was also raining – but only just.
Half a million people live there, but nothing much seems to have been built in the city in recent years and the old architecture is less inspiring than their north-Western European neighbours. One assumes Bosnia (and Croatia away from the coast) have not boomed financially any time in the past century or more. Mostly the buildings looked to be communist-era functionality, but without the stern and imposing grandeur you find in the former East Berlin or in Prague. The only new buildings of any note seemed to be an uninspired office tower, a cinema block and a new mall with all the same chain stores – Zara, H&M, Top Shop, AX – you find in every mall around the world, but no bar (same owner as the hotel – I think he probably matters in Sarajevo).
But to the bar: I walked quite a way, it was still raining softly so I bought an umbrella. As soon as I bought it, the rain stopped. The bar: I found it and there was a sign on the door “we are allowed holidays too, back in mid-July”. Their Facebook page proudly said they were open seven days a week.
Thankfully I had other options. The walk took me past several small mosques and churches – each one with a lawn of slender white marble markers. I would see more of those the next day.
You understand the vulnerability of the city – just how easy it would be to take the lives of 11,000 (including the 1600 children who were murdered) in just three years. The hills and cliffs on both three sides provide an easy turkey shoot, and so it was that artillery and snipers sat up there and slaughtered innocents unspeakable day after day after day, for 1,425 days. The tourist publicity tells you the city has largely been rebuilt and there are few signs of the war. That is optimistic and glaring nonsense, the scars are still everywhere, on almost every building over a certain age – hundreds of them – all pockmarked with shell and bullet scars and burn marks from years of impact. Bedroom and living room windows surrounded by the shrapnel marks that must have stripped countless lives away without warning. The small cemeteries are omnipresent and the hills are covered in larger fields of white marble markers. You stand in one and you can always see at least two others in the not-so distant.
And yet, more than that, it feels like a still broken and crippled city, desperately wanting not to be so anymore, dealing with the sad fact that to much of the planet it’s now just a historically tragic place name (if they know it at all) and an increasingly distant memory in a world that deals up tragedy endlessly. And yet, it’s deeply ironic that this somewhat sleepy and isolated town somehow defined both the beginning and the end of the 20th Century – or, if you will, the end of two successive centuries. Maybe that makes more sense?
I stood on the spot where Princip took the lives of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, and trigger events which still take lives. I had to.
The handful of dedicated museums are small but shattering, not least because the publicly funded ones seem to be a little broken as the city and the country battle over ongoing funding, of which little seems to have arrived in recent times. Galleria 11/07/95, the privately owned visual and audio museum of the Srebrenica massacre was emotionally distressing and yet (as much as it can be) respectfully understated, allowing the words and the many still and moving pictures to speak for themsleves without adding additional judgement. All the audio was on personal headsets allowing each visitor their own space to deal with what was presented in the darkened rooms.
A couple of kilometres away, the battered and obviously struggling Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, dedicated to the victims of those lost years in the city, had one of the most moving images – a very young boy in a striped jersey standing next to his mother. The case next to the photo has the same jersey with a bloody hole in it. The sniper’s bullet passed through his mother before killing the boy. The small galleries are amateurishly but well done and perhaps the better for that – this was, after all, mostly generational neighbours killing neighbours. The galleries were created and are maintained by victims or relatives of the victims of this absolutely preventable gathering of sad and hopeless human tragedies. The wall had post-it notes to write on. All I could do was apologise for having done nothing.
The city seems correctly adverse to tragedy tourism, much as Cambodia is, and as I noted earlier this year, Nice has swiftly decided too. You remember, you mark, and then you move on. There is no sense to be gathered from it no matter how you strive to do so. The fields of white marble and the small museums say enough to say it for all time. As the sign in the park outside the Historical Museum simply says:
I left Sarajevo and I guess that for me too, it will become a very sad memory – hence why I needed to write this now – and went to Mostar, stopping on the way at the preserved tunnel clawed by hand under the runway at the airport, which, for three years, provided the desperate and dangerous lifeline for the city to “free” Bosnia.
To get there, you climb a hill. Near the top, you reach an intersection. The road to the left has a sign that says “Welcome to Republika Srpska”, the right takes you to the Sarajevo tunnel. Neighbours.
The road to Mostar is simply stunning – grand towering cliffs and powerfully dramatic rocky peaks dominate both sides of a wending river gorge road that goes on forever, past villages that seem to cling to mountainsides as I guess they have for centuries.
I asked both Tom and Mabel to direct me to Mostar and they both came up with the same route and ending. It seemed that we had some sort of synergy so I was happy. They seemed to have decided to announce navigation markers as some sort of duet. This new harmony was complicated in the end by neither guide picking up on a new one-way road into the town and that threw the three of us, so I followed the signs. They showed a road over a bridge, then turn left and go one km or so and I would be next to the more famous bridge, the one I wanted to see. I would, I decided, worry about parking when I got there.
It seemed Mostar had other plans for me – I arrived at the first bridge and there were a few road cones and some signs of work ahead. I could see a grader and a digger 100 metres or so on so I slowed as I entered the bridge. “ Bugger”, I said to myself, “road works”. Something told me to slow more and I did, stopping to work out where I was going. It was then I understood the extent of the works directly in front, on the other side of the short crossing. There was a hole …
I stepped out of the car and wandered forward – Jesus, there was a fucking massive hole, some 5 metres at least deep. A digger was down at the bottom of it. No barriers, no warning, no lights, just a massive hole and one that I was about to drive into.
I backed very carefully, sweating somewhat, off the bridge and parked the car. Another car went past me onto the bridge and I ran forward waving. He stopped even closer than I had and I helped him to reverse. Both of us stopped a third car. A policeman turned up and we made noises. He explained that I was only able to park there for 1 hour and then wandered off disinterested in the hole (not his side of the bridge perhaps), so we dragged a piece of random fencing from the park next door across the road to block the bridge. I wonder how long that was there for?
To be fair, holes aside, Mostar was lovely and the rebuilt bridge as visually dramatic as I’m sure the old one was. I’m glad they rebuilt it but you are always aware when standing and looking at it, that it’s not real. Perhaps it should have been left as a gash on the river (there were arguments at the time) but rebuilding it seems to matter more as a fuck-you statement to the gunners. I had to use the loo so I followed a sign into a mosque. It was, the young girl told me, 5 marks to go in. I explained I only wanted to use the loo and she said it was free but I was not allowed to look at anything inside. I wandered in head down, found the loo and exited in the same non-observing posture.
Sadly Mostar had the same sort of shell-shocked buildings that Sarajevo still suffered from.
I drove on, and Mabel pointed right. Tom was saying straight. Given Mabel’s scenic bent and the blue skies, I followed her and soon found myself overlooking a Bosnian river plain with Croatia, I supposed, in the distance.
The road was fine and there were plentiful vineyards and small villages on the high plateau I now found myself on. Tom had lost the plot again and had no idea where I was, but Mabel spoke with confidence and shortly I found myself heading up the on-ramp of an impressive eight-lane motorway that traversed the back of the Dalmatian coastal ranges – sweeping roads, almost deserted, long tunnels (the longest being some 10 km) and magnificent panoramas that looked back into Bosnia, only interrupted by another easy immigration post that took me across into Croatia and eventually down to lovely Split and to Brigid.
Tom and Mabel both announced that I had arrived.