A trip to the Balkans wouldn't be complete without venturing into the culturally diverse and geographically spectacular nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This country has three religions, three languages, three presidents (who hate each other) and two alphabets! The three cultural groups are the Serbs who are Eastern Orthodox, the Croats who are Catholic and the Bosniaks who are Muslim (not to be confused with Bosnians who are the inhabitants of Bosnia no matter what their religion!) The Cyrillic alphabet is used by the Serbs, and in deference to them all road signs are written in both, and car license plates only use letters that are common to both alphabets!
The northern part of the country is Bosnia, and has a cooler climate, while the southern part is Herzegovina and is more Mediterranean. The country is known as Bosnia i Herzegovina or BiH. We came to BiH by public bus from Dubrovnik, crossing the border at its tiny stretch of coast, passing through a huge valley filled with row upon row of orange trees where we stopped at a roadside stand for the driver to stock up on sackfuls of oranges!
For travellers BiH is far cheaper than Croatia and the people, like the Slovenes, are warm and hospitable. But unlike Slovenia and Croatia where you know you're in Europe, in Bosnia you feel like you have one foot in the Middle East, despite the fact that the people look just the same as Slovenes and Croats! It's peculiar because as soon as you cross the border you know for sure you're "not in Kansas any more", even though the people all have the same south-Slavic roots!
The most obvious difference is poverty. Bosnia has 43% unemployment and an ineffective system of government to address its economic woes. The next most obvious difference is that 50% of the population is Muslim, so minarets and mosques compete for space with Othodox and Catholic Churches, and the call to prayer may wake you in the morning, unless its Sunday in which case it's the call to prayer competing with church bells!
The third difference is connected to the first two - Bosnia experienced the worst of the worst in the homeland war, and the legacy is all around you - this still looks like a war-torn country.
The border crossing gave us our first taste of Bosnia's relaxed attitude to rules - they barely glanced at our passports, didn't even touch them, just gave a dismissive wave and a sort of shrug, like "whatever"! Pretty different from the Croats who won't even let you back on the wall in Dubrovnik if you take a break!
Here's Bosnia' new flag, with stars in the hope that some day they will join the EU, and the old one with fleur de lis which you see everywhere! For now, BiH uses the KM or Konvertible Mark as its currency, but in fact they will take Croatian Kunas in the south, and Euros everywhere else ......then give you change in KM.
Our first destination was the small city of Mostar. Our accommodation was a room in a private house just 5 minutes walk from the "old town". Now we've kind of got used to the term "stari grad" (old town) meaning medieval or similar, but exploring Mostar's old town was like stepping into a Turkish bazaar with European soccer shirts and Indian scarves mixed in! One stall was even selling bags with "I love New Zealand" on them, though I have a feeling they just got the wrong shipment!
Our hosts Emir and Maida were the kindest and most charming couple you can imagine. They had family members from far and wide staying for the weekend because it was their annual ratatouille-fest! The wood-fired grill was burning in the garden, roasting peppers and aubergines, grappa was being consumed and music playing!
They had a large garden with row upon row of vegetables, mostly over now, but their fruit trees were laden with ripe pomegranates and persimmons, kiwis were ripening on a huge vine, and chickens supplied the eggs for our breakfasts! And what breakfasts! Emir loves to serve a traditional Bosnian breakfast with as many ingredients as possible from his garden and you never saw such a feast, all washed down with refreshing pomegranate juice!
Oh, and he instructed me on the finer points of Bosnian-Turkish coffee drinking - the swirling and sipping, stirring and sweetening, it's quite a procedure and can't be rushed. I still wasn't really sure what to do with the mud at the bottom of the cup!
The house was modern and spacious with 3 bedrooms for guests, but only one shared bathroom! We were the only guests the first night and there was a family from Russia the second night.
As nice as their house is, you don't have to look hard at this photo to notice the bombed out ruins close by on both sides. This one is right next door, and I don't mind telling you we were a bit nervous walking by when we first arrived, having been dropped on the corner by a taxi...........in the dark!
Emir told us the house and garden had belonged to his family for generations, and are now his. The house was completely demolished in the war, but he had an amazing attitude - the old house needed a lot of updating and instead he now has a brand new one! The location is stunning - here's the view we had on our arrival, from our bedroom window over the River Nevetra.......
....and the famous bridge! The bridge was built by Suleyman the Magnificent in the 1550s and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a huge tourist draw for Mostar. At the time it was built it was the longest single-span stone bridge in the world, pre-dating the Rialto Bridge in Venice. At almost 400 years old it was still strong enough to support Nazi tanks when Bosnia was occupied during WWII. It became a symbol of the way the various cultures here were able to bridge the gulfs that divided them. Here it is in daylight.....
However, what you see is a replica, the original was blown to bits by the Croats in 1993, as signs around town remind you; and here's a sad view from google images taken in the hours before the final, fatal shot.
We watched a beautifully made new video chronicling the history of the bridge including actual footage of Bosniak soldiers running across it as it was being shelled, and its final tumble into the river 75ft below. It then showed the reconstruction and the grand re-opening fireworks, visiting dignitaries including Prince Charles, and the first of the "Divers' Club" to dive off! You can see one young lad in this picture waiting until he's collected enough money to take the plunge!
Unless you are lucky with your timing, the bridge is crammed with busloads of tourists, even at this time of year! We were lucky to find ourselves between groups at one point, having had to practically fight our way across earlier!
The "new old bridge" as they call it, was built with stone cut from the same quarry as the old one, each stone hand carved, and constructed using the same technology, overseen by UNESCO and funded by foreign donors. Here's John instructing a couple of local lads on the correct technique for skimming stones!
In fact most of Mostar was blown to bits while under siege, and saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war with Serb and Croat soldiers able to sit in those hills, so close by, and pick off their targets. Mostar still looks like a war zone. Despite all their efforts, lack of funds and a completely ineffective system of government has meant that derelict buildings and crumbling roads are everywhere. In Dubrovnik you need a guide book to point out which buildings still have bullet holes or shrapnel damage showing. In Mostar it's all too obvious. However, it is amazing how strong and determined the townspeople are, how positive their outlook, how full of hope for the future.
There are ten mosques in this small city, and we squeezed ourselves up the narrow stairs to the top of one minaret to get the requisite aerial view!
Check out the speaker that now crackles out the tinny call to prayer 5 times a day and saves the muezzin the long climb, and the cross on the hill beyond where the Croat forces of the Yugoslav army did their best to destroy the Muslim parts of the town.
Beautiful stone roofs have been lovingly restored as this old part of town now attracts the tourists that are helping to fund the reconstruction.
Muslims in Mostar are very laid back. They allow you to take photos in the mosque, don't ask you to take off your shoes or cover your head, and very few women wear the hijab - except for tourists from elsewhere.
In the area around Mostar there are many interesting and scenic places to visit and they are really working hard to promote tourism. At our host's suggestion, we took a taxi to Blagaj (Blag-guy). It was Sunday afternoon and this tiny village was jam packed with Bosnians enjoying a sunny day out! Blagaj is at the source of the Buna River - here it is, just pouring out of the mountain!
Beside this cavern is the Tejika, a 15th century former monastery for Turkish dervishes! Yes, this is where they came to perfect their twirling! Having carried my scarf around all morning expecting to need it for entering mosques, I had left it at our house and needed one here! We had to remove our shoes, borrow a scarf for me and a skirt for John (who was wearing shorts) all provided free of charge to tiptoe around and see this very spiritual place, and photography is permitted.
It included the tomb of two famous dervishes.
People come here as a sort of pilgrimage, and drink the water using that tin cup.
There's quite a cluster of tourist stalls and cafes and little bridges so you can wander back and forth enjoying the river and waterfalls. From one bridge we caught this lively group having a great Sunday outing, drinking coffee, and having a rousing singalong!
Bosnians are remarkably happy considering their recent history and current situation. While they worry that rebuilding and economic progress are impossibly slow with the present parliamentary system, they make the best of what they've got. They are delighted to welcome foreigners who can tear themselves away from the coast, and try really hard to make your stay worthwhile by promoting all the cultural and scenic highlights of their region. We are so glad we included Mostar on our trip, it was hugely memorable and there's so much to come back for.