Bosnia and Herzegovina has been in the limelight in the 20th century for, mostly, the wrong reasons; yet this is an extraordinary, beautiful and interesting country which Bosnians are doing their best to rebuild. Forbiddingly sparse in parts, lushly wooded in others; the trees in October were a riot of colour. For myself, the most remarkable feature are the fast flowing clear blue waters of its many rivers, “our richest resource” remarked one of Sarajevo’s defenders during the three year siege of the early nineties.
It is not just in the landscape but in the towns and villages too where, architecturally, Austria Hungary meets Ottoman Porte – concentrating the mind on the country’s seemingly unnecessarily tragic history.
Sarajevo’s monument to mark the place of Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie has been smashed for a second time. A visit to this fatal (and unplanned) spot, just before the Latinska Cuprija bridge, brings home the narrow dimensions of the street. Sarajevo is surprisingly compact. The museum dedicated to the event is worth a visit. The houses lining the embankment of the river Miljacka could be anywhere in the 19th century Dual Monarchy. To capture a flavour of the wealthy both of the Moslem and the Orthodox inhabitants of the early 20th century, visit the Despic House of a family of Serbian merchants. (The owner has left one of the wisest letter of wishes you could wish to read.) Also view the picturesque Ottoman Syrzo’s house. The differences, yet similiarities, in the domestic arrangements make a most interesting comparison. Rebecca West, author of ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’, was impressed by the Ottoman houses which she described as “simple and sensible… Western housewifery is sluttish compared to that aseptic order”.
Nearby is the Fine Art Academy, built as a huge neo-gothic Evangelical church, has around the corner, handily, a fine bar with a pre-war Paris atmosphere. Here our hosts, the sculptor, Fikret Libovac and theatre director Zlatan Smajlovic were hanging the latest exhibition. Both men withstood the siege and Zlatan directed theatre in the centre of Sarajevo throughout. Across the river in Bistrik is one of the two main synagogues; a resplendent brewery and a remarkable Franciscan church dedicated to St. Ante – there is a school in Herzegovina specialising in religious art. The interior out shines any ecclesiastical modern interior in the UK. The brewery, Sarajevska Pivara, has been restored and has a large pub inside, but the flats facing it are still pockmarked by bullets and grenades from the 1992-5 conflict between the Serbs and the Bosniaks. The Serbian guns were in the hills surrounding the city.
The old Town – the Bascarsija – is Ottoman, the fine Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque and Madrasa being founded in 1537. The whole is beautifully presented, the Madrasa has both film and small museum. The lanes are full of restaurants, coffee houses and shops selling carpets, metal work and recycled ammunition – recycled in the form of pens, etc. There is a Han, now selling mostly Turkish rugs and tat from India, but where a poet was reciting to a passing Saturday crowd.
The ancient synagogue has a history of the Jewish community and it is worth making a visit to the Jewish cemetery.
Unsurprisingly, there are memorials everywhere – the siege of Sarajevo is recounted in the History Museum. The massacre of Srebrenica has a remarkable exhibition to commemorate this atrocity in the Galerija 11/07/95. There are fine photographs and film. The gallery is next to the Catholic church where there is a new statue of Pope Francis to commemorate his visit in June. The Srebrenica memorial is a must for any visitor to Bosnia. Each institution, whether school wall, office or hospital has plaques with the names of the dead. I was corrected when I called it a civil war. It is the war. Elsewhere in the Balkans it is Tito’s war which is still mentioned as the war.
We, the European peacekeepers, don’t come out of this well, from the Bosnians point of view. From the ruins of Eugene of Savoy’s castle atop the hill of the city it is difficult not to wonder at the wisdom of the Dayton Accord seeing the canton border of the Serb Republika Srpsk. It did bring an end to the war. The Serbs also were given Srebrenica.
On the other hand the Franciscans come out of the whole thing bearing goodwill from all sides. A visit to Kresevo is a delight. The little town offers ancient Ottoman houses, a fine, contemporary Franciscan monastery and fresh trout for lunch from the blue clear waters of the Kresevka. Taken around by Fra Ivica, who changed into his habit to conduct us to the museum. This was set up by Fra Grga Martic in the early 20th century. I am interested in the medieval Hungarian and Bosnian Kings’ habit of inviting skilled craftsmen into their lands either to defend, cultivate or industrialise them. Here in Bosnia it was the ‘German’ miners as in Bohemia and Slovakia, who worked the rich deposits producing much of the gold and silver for the rest of Europe, before the discoveries in the New World. In the hills there are also onyx, crystal and citrine.
The Monastery was turned into a childrens’ home and returned to the Order in 1954. There is much of interest here, including a photograph of 1899 with Bosnian Catholics surrounding a friar dressed, at first sight, as Bosnian Moslems in Ottoman clothes. Colour made the difference – black for Christians, red for Moslems and green for Orthodox.
A 4 x 4 is needed for the visit to Lukomir, a good three hours from Sarajevo. The 12 inhabitants (two families as opposed to the 50 of a few decades ago) remaining in this hamlet were about to travel down to the valley as the snows were coming. I found this interesting place rather sad. I also recommend a visit to the pyramids of Visoko. They are disputed but are of interest.
Trevnik has a pretty painted mosque, the same date as that in Tetova in Macedonia, and a fine steam train outside the museum made in Czechoslovakia. Jajce has far the best tourist office and a great castle with Ottoman houses around its base. We were planning to reach the mills on the Vrbas but the roads were up everywhere. However, we did see, through its protective grilled door, a fine Mitras figure in the remains of the Roman temple on the outskirts of the town.
In Mostar the fighting was even more difficult to rationalise than in Sarajevo. The Bosnian Croats on one bank of the beautiful Neretva, the Moslem community on the other. There is a film of the destruction of the bridge and its restoration amid much cheering. Along with international leaders involved, most notably the Turks, The Prince of Wales is to be seen as among the first users. I had previously made other attempts to get to Mostar so my expectations were high. Close to, it seems to lack the elegance seen in photographs of the original, but taken from a mosque further down the river the form appears in all its elegance.
The Turks are everywhere, touring their old Empire, but then so are the tourists shops selling old army gear. I wonder what they make of that. Mostar is lovely, especially when the tourists have gone. There is a fine Turkish house, still family owned, with a musuem, but, as with the the parador model, you can stay here too. Outside of the old town the avenues are tree lined and attractive.
Herzegovina has many delights. The town of Pocitelj where, under the initiative of Zlatan Smajlovic and his English actor wife, Gina Landor, MLAZ offers open-air performance (the stage built of bricks from bombed buildings) and exhibitions with literary events. The stage was built by Zlatan with bricks taken from bombed buildings. In the most picturesque setting, previously much war-damaged, things are happening again.
Blagaj has a fine Sufi tekki at the fount of the Buna. The Dervishes, the hippies of the Moslem world, were closed down in the 50s but their tekki is unmissable. They carry out their mystic ‘Swirling’ on the 1st Saturday of May each year. Just before Stolac is a field of extraordinary tombs or stecci – pre-Cyrillic script, horses and strange naïve figures. In the town itself, the Moslem community are rebuilding. The river is beautiful and plumes of spray make the landscape hazy. Everyone is rebuilding their past and the arts are making inroads in the healing process. However, in Mostar, there is a Croate and a Bosniac University.
The cigarette packets have three warnings on them all identical in Bosnian, Croat and Serbian to take the place of Serbo-Croat.
One just wants all those wonderful, fast-flowing rivers to wash all the recent history away. Tourism here will really help and there is so much of interest and beauty to see. A great guide to Sarajevo is available to download at www.sarajevotraveler.com