Trip Start Jul 23, 2007
27Trip End Aug 23, 2007
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The book I have been reading is based in Eastern Europe, and I think it made me want to go a bit further East. Star and another traveller I had met in Dubrovnik recommended Bosnia and Herzegovina to me, so last night, I decided to ditch my train to Sibenik and get the bus to Mostar instead. I took the ferry back to Split, said goodbye to Star, and booked my bus, which was leaving 50 minutes later. As I wandered past the train station, I thought 'Well, there's never any harm in asking,' so went in to see if I could get the money back for my train ticket. It was only 37KN anyway, but nonetheless, the clerk apologetically told me I could only get a 90% refund! So I went to buy a chocolate bar and iced tea with my newly returned money, and a pastry for the journey (the food here is so good!)
As we left Croatia, you could see the landscape changing a little. Croatia is very well maintained, more Western, and had huge numbers of vineyards just before the border. As soon as we crossed into Bosnia (well, technically Herzegovina, which is the south of the country), it started to look a bit more like Albania. The buildings were a little more run down and stark, and as we entered Mostar I started to wonder what I was doing. I arrived as the sun was setting and was feeling lost without my comfort blanket of a Lonely Planet guide! So I had no map of the town, only the hope that the tourist agency was near the bus station. As it happened, a woman met me off the bus (as often happens over here), asking if I needed a room for the night. She didn't speak much English, but was happy to wait while I went to the Tourist Information Centre to ask some quick questions and buy a map. She led me literally across the car park to her block of flats and showed me the room. OK, so it was sharing with 2 Polish guys and a Canadian and the beds were about 30cm apart, but it had a bathroom, was clean and cost just 10 Euros! Thats about 6 pounds. Everything here is so cheap compared to Croatia and especially England. I discovered the Canadian had the LP guide to the Western Balkans (am thinking I'm becoming a bit too dependant on these) so I poured over the details for Mostar, making notes along the way.
Having got my bearing somewhat, I headed off in the direction of the old town, a little uneasy wondering if the country was actually safe to be in, let alone wandering about as a solo female in the dark. But luckily it's fine! They are still trying to rebuild the damage done in 1993, but the people here are so friendly, always willing to help out, and Mostar has a lively bar and nightclub scene (like a holiday resort, not like a seedy city), so there were plenty of people out and about. As I wandered through the old town, I suddenly caught my first glimpse of the Old Bridge, and it took my breath away. Lit up, perched 20m above the river Neretva, it looked magical in the night. I ate the local trout (fish finally! And at 12MK (4 pounds) a lot more affordable than Croatia) overlooking the bridge.
The original bridge was built in 1566 by Mimar Hagreddin, a follower of Kodja Mimar Sinan, who controlled the area at the time. It played a key part in the Ottoman empire, and is thought to be one of their greatest engineering feats. It is guarded by two towers on either side. Tragically, the UNESCO World Heritage site was strategically bombed during the Croat-Muslim fighting in 1993, and was destroyed. The Bosnian war took it's toll on the city, in a big way. It wasn't until tomorrow morning, in the light, that I was able to see the full effect. There are still ruined building lying in rubble, and every other building is pockmarked with the indentations of bullets. You can see occassional gaping holes in the ground where presumably mines went off, and metal doors punctured with hundreds of clear cut holes. This is 14 years on. It's incredible to think of what was happening so recently in this beautiful citym and the atrocities that happened not only here but in the whole region. I feel bad to say that I didn't really know much about it, other than vague recollections of more war on the 10 o'clock news at the age of 6, but I find it fascinating and am trying to learn as much as I can while I'm out here. Again, my book is probably igniting my itnerest in the Ottomans, and you can't help but get absorbed in it when you're staying in a city like this.
When I woke up this morning, I set out with the excitement of seeing a new city, but a little unsure of what to wear. Would it be the same as Islamic Kruja- would I get away with wearing a skirt and a strappy top? I decided to opt for a T-shirt, but still felt a little self concious. It was fine later though, when the main street filled (as much as it can here) with tourists, dressed in a similar way to me. There are several museums and mosques you can visit throughout the town to get an idea of the local culture; I started off in the Turkish house. Perhaps unsuprisingly, it was very similar to the house I visited in Kruja, the only difference being the arabic written on the wall. There was a beautiful minaret with views over the river- they built it in 1635 so the breeze would run right through- clever people. The temperatures here are back up to the high thirties- I've been spoiled on the coast for the last week!
For breakfast, I bought a Bosnian croissant- similar, but a bit more bread like, and was given a free fig in the market. The figs here are amazing- nothing like the unripe things we get in England, you eat the skin and everything. So I went back later to buy a bag and some grapes to boot. They have an Old Bazaar here catering for tourists that is almost identical to the one in Kruja, Albania, right down to the cobbled streets. I went in a photo exhibition and museum about the old bridge, which was fascinating. They actually had video footage of when the bridge was destroyed, and you can see why people say it destroyed the city's soul at the same time. The bridge represented the Muslim and Bosnian sides of the town being joined together, cautious acceptance of each other, and the ability to live alongside the other. When it was destroyed, the town was split in two, symblising what was happening across Bosnia at the time. They have meticulously restored it, first dragging every last piece of stone out of the river below. They spent ages working out the logistics of building such a bridge, and tried to do it in exactly the same way as in the 16th century. They even cut down the stone into random shapes as that was how the original would have been built. In the last 100 years, crazy people have taken to diving off the 28m high bridge into the freezing waters below, and in July each year, there is a diving competition. I didn't realise at the time, but when I was in Dubrovnik, some people were watching footage of it on the internet! The divers are actually crazy, I hate to think of the force you hit the water... it was bad enough in Tirana jumping from a 10m high board!
I then spent a while buying not-very-authentic jewellry from some of the stalls in the Bazaar. Not sure whether haggling was expected, I gently tried to knock a couple of marks off (they were only 2 or 3 pounds to start with) which seemed to be OK! Yet again though, I had no respect for the heat of the day, and found it veeery hot standing outside in the sun. Feeling a bit peckish, I stopped for cevapi, a traditional fast food over what appears to be the whole of the Balkans. They are all slightly different though- in Albania, they serve doner kebab, chips and salad all inside a pitta bread. Croatia seems to be mince with bread on the side, and in Bosnia the mince is made into little meatballs, and stuffed inside a big pitta bread with onions. Very cheap and a bit greasy, it's infinitely better than a Big Mac!
As I was eating lunch, I heard the call for prayer, alerting me that it was 1pm. According to one of the Polish guys I was staying with last night, there was a train to Sarajevo at 1:30pm, which I wanted to catch. So I scurried as fast as you can scurry in 37 degree heat back to my room, stopping off on the way to look at one of the big mosques. Of course, they had a service on, so I had to keep going. I just managed to get my bags down to the station for 1:25, in time to buy my ticket, and found it strangely deserted. Asking the guard, I discovered the 2 trains that go to Sarajevo leave at 7:30am and 6:30pm. Hm. Now I didn't know what to do- I didn't really want to arrive at night, but at the same time I wanted to get there asap. I asked if there was a student discount, and bless him, he called 3 different people to find out if I could use my regular uni card as opposed to an ISIC card. The answer was no. Damn, I guess I'd just have to shell out the 3 pounds 40 for the 3 hour train journey...
So I went back to the room, to see if I could still leave my bags there. I ended up not only leaving them there til 6pm, but also having a shower before I left- all for my one 10 euro night stay! The lady I was staying with was so nice, and even let me take the key with me for the whole day, presumably stopping her from letting someone else stay there. Back in town, I visited another Turkish house, beautifully decorated with the low chairs and tables, before trying my luck again at the mosque. Alas, I got there yet again as a service was starting. The ticket man was very apologetic, but he needn't have been- after all, it's a place of worship before a tourist attraction!
When I went back to the apartment to pick up my bags, someone new had arrived; Pedro. I chatted to him until I had to leave- he had come from Sarajevo, so was able to alleviate my fears of not having anywhere to stay- apparently there was a travel agency in the station who drive you to their hostel. When I was buying my ticket for the train, I started talking to an English couple in front of me in the queue. There were so many Brits going to Sarajevo- turns out I'm not being quite as adventerous as I once thought :) Anyway we got to the front of the queue, and they asked if they could pay in Euros, as they'd run out of mark. In the town centre, everything is priced in Euros, and they're more than happy to take them off your hands, but evidently this is not the case at the station. I had enough money, so said I'd lend them the fare until we got to Sarajevo- it was only 7 pounds, but they were very grateful (as Brits are) asking how they could repay me... I said just give me the money back! The train pulled into the rarely used station at 6:30pm. Bring on Sarajevo!