Category Archives: Bosnia & Herzegovina

Miss Sarajevo

We woke up early to catch the 8am train from Mostar to Sarajevo. When our taxi didn’t show up by 7.30am, we decided to walk to the station. It was a good half hour of brisk walking with our heavy backpacks, but we made it just in time, and the train journey was well worth the exertion. The train passed through some beautiful countryside, mostly between and under mountains (apparently the tracks run through some 68 tunnels).

View from the train. Literally heaven-on-earth

In Sarajevo we stayed just down the street from where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were assassinated in 1914. The museum that now stands on that street corner has some interesting displays related to the assassination, including the pants that the assasin, Gavrilo Princip was wearing when he shot them. Revisiting the events of almost 100 years ago, we can’t help but wonder, was the assassination merely a plot by Serbian military-backed plot to gain independence from the Austrian-Hungary monarchy, or was it part of a larger, more sinister conspiracy to start World War I and thereby set the stage for the establishment of a New World Order?

The famous intersection. Gavrilio Princip was standing where the car is parked when he shot Franz Ferdinand and Sophie

Franz  and Sophie in their open-top sports car just minutes before they were gunned down. The museum has a video re-enactment of the events of that fateful day, which demonstrates the Archduke’s enviable catching arm. Before Gavrilo did him in, five other assassins failed. While four just didn’t react fast enough, one fellow did manage to lob a grenade towards the Archduke’s car. Not only was the Archduke alert enough to see the grenade, but he even caught it in mid-air and tossed it onto the road behind him (there are various other versions of this on the web). Although the members of his entourage seated in the car behind were badly wounded from the blast, the Archduke still had the state of mind to give his scheduled speech at the town hall a few minutes later. (Photo from the Museum Sarajevo 1878-1918 collection)

But we digress. We loved Sarajevo. For one, the hostel we were at, Travellers Home hostel has cable TV in the dining area, a well equipped kitchen stocked with an interesting selection of free food including microwave popcorn and packet soup, and our room even had a remote control sun roof! Sarajevo itself is lovely. It’s situated in a valley surrounded by mountains on both sides. The food is good and value for money, and the people are genuinely friendly. And the best thing is, there aren’t too many tourists around.

Panoramic view of Sarajevo

Baščaršija, the heart of Ottoman Sarajevo, which dates back to 1462. Baščaršija was the meeting place for traders from Europe and Asia. Its streets are still named after the over 80 trades that operated here at its height.

Our staple diet, the mouth watering Cevapi – grilled minced veal, bread, fresh onions and pickled chilies (most cevapi places have butter curd instead of chilies)

Bosnian version of nasi campur – rice with a selection of dishes, including stuffed peppers, beef and beans

Of course, being in Sarajevo you can’t help but imagine what life must have been like during the 44 month long siege just 20 years ago. While all we could remember from back then was the news footage of rockets setting the Sarajevo sky aglow, we were now hearing (and reading) story after story of how ordinary citizens survived for almost four years in a city under siege, in a war where you could rarely see the enemy, but had to be extra careful that your enemy could not see you.

We took the famous “tunnel tour” to the key sights of the siege. This included the Sarajevo Tunnel that was such a vital lifeline for city’s inhabitants, as well as the hills from where the Serb forces laid siege on the city. *Notice that we say “Serb forces”, not “Serbs”. Many Serbs were in fact opposed to the Serb forces and their objectives, and many stayed behind to defend Sarajevo.

The infamous sniper alley, where anyone walking on the street would almost surely attract the attention of snipers. The yellow building in the background is the Holiday Inn, where foreign press correspondents were based. The twin towers, which were almost badly damaged during the war are now gleaming again. A spanking new mall now sits in front of them

Our guide, who also owns Residents Rooms Hostel. He was serving as a government officer when the war started. One of the things he had to do during the war was negotiate with Serb forces the safe passage of two bus loads carrying women and children out of Sarajevo. The Serb forces allowed this on one condition – that he follows them on the bus across the border of the Serb forces territory and then returns to the city.

View from a section of the Serb forces line, from where they fired mortars onto the city. Snipers were also positioned along this line

The 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics marked a proud moment in Bosnia’s history because it was the first time the games were held in the then Yugoslavia. The bobsled track  that was constructed for the games was destroyed during the war as it was in the Serb forces territory.

This tunnel provided the only link between the city and the outside world. Tonnes of humanitarian aid and weapons as well as an estimated 1 million people passed through the 800m long tunnel that connected Bosnian held territory and the airport (which was a neutral zone controlled by the UN). The tunnel was 5 ft tall and 1 ft wide.

The entrance to the tunnel lies under this house, which has since been converted into a museum. As this was a top secret location during the war, the sign that says “tunnel” on the front of the house probably didn’t exist back then

As the international community dragged its feet, an estimated 12,000 people, including over 1,500 children died in the siege of Sarajevo (and many more in other parts of the country). The most shocking failure of the international community was perhaps the implementation of the arms embargo. While the citizens of Sarajevo became sitting ducks as they lost access to weapons to defend themselves (and they even had to surrender what weapons they already possessed), the Serb forces continued to receive a constant supply of weapons and oil from Serbia.

We understand there are many different opinions of why what happened, happened. But after what we’ve seen and heard, one particular version that we personally would like to believe is that it had more to do with politicians seeking to consolidate power (following the dissolution of Yugoslavia) rather than straightforward ethnic or religious feuds.

Having been for centuries a meeting place for traders from the east and west, Sarajevo has always been a melting pot for people of different ethnicity and religion. Until today, the city’s multicultural heritage lives on especially in the old part of town. At various times of day, call to prayers ring out from the beautiful old mosques, churches and synagogues scattered among the narrow streets here.

Gazi Husrev Bey’s Mosque, one of the first mosques in Sarajevo, built in 1531. According to legend, instead of immediately building the mosque with the budget he was given by the patron Gazi Husrev, the mosque’s architect first gave out small loans to the people living in the area to start various businesses. Once their businesses were established after a few years, they in turn contributed back to the construction of the mosque. The architect also hid gold coins in one of the walls of the mosques, so that if the mosque was ever destroyed, the gold coins would be found and could be used for its restoration. The mosque was badly damaged in the 1992-1995 war, but not damaged enough to reveal the location of the gold coins.

The ancient Serbian Orthodox church of St. Michael the Archangel, which dates from medieval times and was reconstructed in the late 1800s

Evidence that this spirit of peace and tolerance has been alive in Sarajevo for centuries is found in the Ahdname that was issued by the Ottoman Sultan Fateh Mehmed II when he conquered Bosnia in 1463.  It is one of the world’s oldest firman (edict) on religious freedom:

The Ahdame (Source here)

“I, the Sultan Khan the Conqueror, hereby declare the whole world that, The Bosnian Franciscans granted with this sultanate firman are under my protection. And I command that: No one shall disturb or give harm to these people and their churches! They shall live in peace in my state. These people who have become emigrants, shall have security and liberty. They may return to their monasteries which are located in the borders of my state. No one from my empire notable, viziers, clerks or my maids will break their honour or give any harm to them! No one shall insult, put in danger or attack these lives, properties, and churches of these people! Also, what and those these people have brought from their own countries have the same rights… By declaring this firman, I swear on my sword by the holy name of Allah who has created the ground and sky, Allah’s Prophet Mohammed, and 124,000 former prophets that; no one from my citizens will react or behave the opposite of this firman!” (May 28, 1463)

A page from the Sarajevo Haggadah

Another tale of inter-faith kinship involves the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 600 year old illustrated Jewish manuscript that is now worth over USD700 million. When the Nazis invaded Sarajevo, Hitler instructed his troops to seize the haggadah from the National Museum and burn it. The chief librarian of the National Museum at that time, a Muslim Bosniak by the name of Derviš Korkut, risked his own life in order to save it. When the Nazi officer came to demand for the haggadah, Derviš lied that another officer had already come to collect it (and had already burnt it), although it was still sitting on the bookshelf behind him. The Nazi officer searched the library, but couldn’t find it because it did not have a golden cover as he believed it would. The librarian then smuggled the book out of Sarajevo, passing it to a Muslim cleric in Zenica, who in turn hid it from the Nazis under the floorboards of a mosque… How cool is that?

This piece took a bit longer to write than usual. As travelers, we see things in a blink of an eye, so it is often difficult to fully or accurately appreciate or understand the places and people that we come across, even more so in a region as complex as the Balkans. So for this post, we weren’t sure just where to begin, nor what to say, nor how to end it. Not that we didn’t have anything to say, we actually had too much to say. Bosnia definitely overwhelms. We stayed for six nights in Sarajevo, and that wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy. This is one place we’re definitely coming back to. We hope you will too.

The title of this post was taken from a U2 song.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sam “Indiana Jones” Osmanagic and the Valley of Pyramids

There is something peculiar in the hills just 30 kilometres out of Sarajevo. Around the small town of Visoko, a little under an hour from Sarajevo by public bus, there are pyramids! Not just one or two pyramids, but five!

This pyramid complex was unveiled to the world in 2005 by Texas-based Bosnian businessman-turned-writer-turned-pyramidologist, Semir “Sam” Osmanagic. Sam, who’s also known as the Balkans’ Indiana Jones, reckons that the pyramids were built by an ancient Illyrian tribe that occupied the region sometime between 12,000 and 500 BC. Obviously having a penchant for dramatic, Sam has named the five pyramids as the “Pyramid of the Sun”, the “Pyramid of the Moon” (Plješevica hill), the “Pyramid of the (Bosnian) Dragon”, the “Pyramid of the Earth” and last but not least, the “Pyramid of Love”. The largest of these, the Pyramid of the Sun, is said to reach a height of 220 metres, thus making the Great Pyramid of Giza look like Lego.

Tallest pyramids in the world (Source: Wikipedia). The Sunway Pyramid is not listed in here. And we had no idea North Korea was constructing a 330m tall pyramid/hotel.

The Bosnian Pyramids, which have even been featured in the National Geographic and Smithsonian online magazines, do not lack their fair share of naysayers and disbelievers, who have hailed all sorts of accusations at Sam and his pyramids. Nevertheless, as famous circus showman P.T. Barnum is supposed to have once said, “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. Over 400,000 people have visited Visoko since October 2005 when Sam announced his discovery. The Pyramid of the Sun Foundation that he established has since garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars in public donations and thousands more from state-owned companies. Even Malaysian property/gambling/resorts magnate, former logger and now proud owner of Cardiff City Football Club, Tan Sri Vincent Tan is said to have donated USD 220,000, following former Prime Minister of Malaysia Tun Mahathir’s visit to Visoko in 2006.

We, the Cabutlaris are no archeologists, but we do like pyramids. So we set out to Visoko.

Photo of Pyramid of the Sun taken from the bridge near the Visoko bus station. It does look like a decent pyramid from here.

Pyramid of the Sun, taken from another angle and a closer distance. Somehow the pyramid’s angles don’t seem right from here.

Walking through Visoko town. One thing’s for sure, the pyramids are great for the local economy

We came across a wedding a little further up the road

A sign that we were on the right track

After a steep climb we came to the start of the pyramid trail. There are two huts that provide information, run by the pyramid foundation.

The location of archeological finds on the Pyramid of the Sun. We only managed to walk to #5. And we did not see the beam of light shooting out from its apex

Map showing the entire pyramid complex. Once again, we did not see the beam of white light shooting out from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun

Technical mumbo-jumbo for the nerds out there

They sell cool souvenirs… Indy!

The Pyramid of the Sun is thought to have been made using an ancient form of concrete. Someone’s excavated this part

A better preserved section of exposed ancient “concrete”

Close up: Ancient concrete, or natural conglomerate?

Excited from seeing ancient concrete

It was a bit of a climb getting up to point #5 on the Pyramid of the Sun. So we just didn’t have the legs to walk all the way to the pyramids of the Moon, Earth, Dragon and Love. We did follow some signboards towards the underground tunnels that link the pyramids though. The signboards led us to a leather factory that looked abandoned. The guy sitting in the guardhouse shoved a brochure at us and seemed to offer to take us to the tunnel.  He seemed to be saying that the entrance to the tunnel was located either in or behind the factory compound.

Sara and our guide. He couldn’t speak much English – the only words he seemed to know were “pyramid” and “tunnel”. We can’t speak much Bosnian. The only two words we know are “hvala” (thank you) and “dobro” (good/fine)

Leather factory that may or may not be abandoned. Can still see the Pyramid of the Sun from here

Going into the tunnel. It was pitch black. We didn’t say anything to each other, but at this point, the thought that he might be planning to kill us did cross both our minds. Dylan cursed himself for not learning more Bosnian words. “Hvala” and “dobro” wouldn’t be any use in this situation

The one artifact that our guide pointed  out to us. Could this be an ancient wheel?

One of us said that he/she was claustrophobic, so we turned around. Turns out our guide wasn’t planning to kill us after all. He was actually really nice and even offered to take our photo

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Keeping the faith in Mostar

The further we travel, the more apparent it becomes that the one thing that makes any place special is not its grand buildings, historical sights, natural beauty or great food. It’s the people we meet. And we’ve had the pleasure of spending time with some very awesome people throughout this trip. We’ve had tea with Habishah and her nomad family in Morocco, we’ve made paella with Jose and Reitxel in Toledo, and we’ve celebrated our friend Josil’s birthday party together with Davide and his family in Verona, to name a few. We’ve also hung out with many other like-minded travellers.

Arriving in Mostar, Bosnia after a four hour bus ride from Dubrovnik, we weren’t quite sure what to expect (and were a little bit anxious, no doubt), but we certainly did not expect what was coming. Mostar now sits on the top spot of our favourite travel destinations. We were initially supposed to stay for two nights, but liked it so much we stayed for three, and could have easily stayed for a week or longer, if time had permitted.

This is mostly because in Mostar, we had the honour of meeting Majda (pronounced Mai-da) and Bata. Majda runs Hostel Majda’s – the friendliest, warmest hostel that we’ve ever stayed at. She makes friends with all her guests, always makes sure everyone is alright, and even finds the time to whip up something special in the kitchen everyday for everyone, on the house.

Travelers leave behind all sorts of artwork and memorabilia at Majda’s. See if you can spot our contribution – one of the Orang Asli pandanus bookmarks we had brought along on the trip

Majda’s brother, the SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy) Bata, runs an offbeat 12-hour tour of Mostar’s surrounds catered specially for backpackers (only those staying at Majda’s). Bata’s tour is terrible because it has spoilt all future tours for us. We cannot imagine any other tour coming close to being as truthful, crazy and side-splittingly funny (and a little scary) as his. We won’t give away much more details of where we went and what happened, as his jealous competitors might stumble upon this blog, but we’ll just leave you a little bit of advice – come to Mostar, stay at Majda’s and go on Bata’s tour!

Bata doing his thing

Kravice Waterfall

Crazy Dylan went swimming in the 12-degree Celsius water

Bosnians take their coffee very seriously. Correct way of drinking Bosnian coffee: Dip a bit of the sugar cube in the coffee, then take a small nibble and slurp the coffee

Sara’s favourite dessert, Hurmastica (syrup-soaked sponge fingers)

The Mostar countryside

Pocitelj, an Ottoman-era fortress village in the Mostar countryside

A sufi centre of learning in the village of Blagaj, which dates back to the 15th century. This important site for Muslims was miraculously spared from shelling during the war. The limestone caves behind it are an important archeological site where neolithic artefacts have been uncovered.

The same warmth and hospitality exuded by Majda and Bata were also evident in the other Bosnians we come across in Mostar – the shopkeepers, grandmothers, gentlemen hanging out in coffee houses, hairdressers, children, cats, etc.

Haircut time

Having said this, we are only all too aware that Mostar is still a city divided (both physically and emotionally) along ethnic and religious lines, and that efforts to reconcile these divisions are still very much a work in progress. The physical scars of the 1992-95 war remain in plain sight, and are especially apparent in the dozens of bullet riddled, war torn buildings scattered around Mostar. But we cannot even begin to imagine the emotional scars the people of Mostar must bear and live with each and every day.

One of dozens of war torn buildings left behind in Mostar

This was once a bank and the tallest building in Mostar. The Croat army used it as a sniper post. It’s now abandoned and has become somewhat of a magnet for curious backpackers.

View of East Mostar from the fourth floor of the old bank building. Spent bullet shells can still be found amongst the rubble

View of the more affluent West Mostar from the staircase of the old bank

However, we are awed at the courage and determination of the people of Mostar to rebuild their lives and their town, especially under the very difficult prevailing circumstances. One story in particular stands out – that of a bridge that is said to have been akin to the soul of the people of Mostar. The Stari Most (Old Bridge), which had connected people living on both sides of the Neretva River that flows through Mostar, had been there for as long as anyone could remember. Mostar itself was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in the medieval times guarded Stari Most.

Stari Most was 427 years old when it was shelled to smithereens by the Bosnian Croat army in the siege of 1993. As this pedestrian bridge was of little strategic importance, its destruction has been termed as an act of “killing memory”, in which evidence of a shared cultural heritage and peaceful co-existence was deliberately destroyed.

The bridge was reconstructed in 2001, with help from the international community. The new bridge, which is called Stari Grad, was made to be as similar as possible to the original, using the same materials and technology. It is now the new heart of Mostar, a focal point for its growing tourism industry, and a symbol of hope of a peaceful shared future.

Stari Grad

The bridge is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Sign in the old town of east Mostar: Don’t forget

Tagged , , , , , , , ,