Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Balkans: Bosnia i Herzegovina and Serbia

I finished up my trip with Jo and only had a week remaining on my Balkans tour with the most important stops still to come.

Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia and Hertzegovina
Belgrade in Serbia

I chose the Balkans because I wanted to learn about the wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia. BiH and Serbia were the two main combatants in my picture of the war and so I was very interested in visiting these two countries more than any of the others. One week for two countries is a terrible schedule, but I tried to make it work.
I left Montenegro by bus. I traveled all along the Montenegrin coastline and it was stunning. I highly recommend that drive to anyone who has the opportunity. Take a car so that you can stop at any of the beautiful little coastal villages along the way. The bus arrived in Dubrovnik in the early evening and I settled down in a hostel. Went out for dinner and a little sight seeing after sunset. Dubrovnik's old town is lovely all lit up. Morning boat ride plans were ruined by rainstorms, but the silver lining was the start of my real Balkan war tour. I'd seen fliers for a war photography exhibit and made my way to the gallery through the rain. The exhibit had blurbs explaining the different conflicts and photographs from many different photographers. Some were black and white and very bleak. They showed families trudging down long muddy roads and the refugee trail. Others were red...filled with fires and blood. They were disturbing and frightening. I've become accustomed to the war photography of the World Wars. GIs and civilians in the hospitals and on the fields, doomed to die or to live ages before I was born or thought of. Their uniforms, hair styles and faces identify them as part of a world that doesn't exist anymore. Those pictures don't ring of the real world. The exhibits in this gallery did. Bottles of coke littering the streets, children wearing Nike or Adidas and the color. I spent a few hours staring at the still photographs, watching the slide shows and listening to the radio broadcasts before heading into town and catching my bus to Mostar.
Mostar has a lovely old town, especially when you consider that the entire old town has been rebuilt since the ceasefire. I must confess that the famous bridge in Mostar looked like a bridge to me and that I cannot fathom how it earned its fame. The jumping competitions off of the bridge would be a sight to see though. The river looks stunning running through the city, and Mostar is home to the only mosque on my trip that allowed me to climb a minaret for a gorgeous view. The town's entire tourism seems focused on that one bridge though and I really would have liked to see what else it had to offer.
The train from Mostar to Sarajevo is supposed to be one of the most beautiful train routes available. The river Danube flows alongside the tracks almost the entire way. And it was lovely, but definitely not more so than the Adriatic had been on my earlier bus ride. I arrived in Sarajevo and met up with my host for my few days in Sarajevo.
First stop was the "Tunnel of Hope". Apparently it's a very famous museum which I'd never heard of before planning this trip. The museum tour begins with a short movie which follows the war from start to finish. The first shots fired to the peace talks in Dayton, Ohio. After watching film of people running from snipers and tanks destroying homes and schools, the video shifts to a conference room where old men sign a piece of paper with expensive pens and simply end the war and the violence.
The museum used to be a private residence. The community members in this small outskirts town in Sarajevo decided to dig a tunnel to filter supplies into the beleaguered capital and this home was the starting point. Only a small portion of the tunnel is still open. The parts that ran under the airport obviously had to be boarded up for security reasons. It's a short tunnel in which I can barely stand straight. Thousands of people traipsed through that tunnel carrying food, water, arms and other necessary supplies. Others traveling the other way, evacuated children and the elderly to safety.
Inside the museum they have artifacts from the war. Tools used to build the tunnel, meal boxes that were supplied by the UN forces and old shells that fell in and around the area. Also they have photographs and notes from some of the museums most famous visitors...whose names I no longer recall, but they were very famous.
More museums the next day and more very depressing videos coverage of the war, but also a lot of inspiring exhibits of how Sarajevo survived the siege  Posters from plays and concerts performed during those four years, paintings from children doing school projects.
I met up with some couchsurfers for a bit of non-depressing time and attended a free concert of famous Balkan performers. No one that I had heard of...but I loved it.
Bus from Sarajevo to Belgrade arrived early in the morning and I stored my luggage for a few hours of exploring the city. Not enough time to do anything too extensive, but I enjoyed walking around downtown Belgrade with two of Belgrade's walking tours: the free walking tour and the underground Belgrade walking tour.
The free tour was great, as they always are. We explored the main sights like the fortress and the Republic square. Friendly guides and interesting stories: ask me about Silicon Valley. Underground Belgrade was kind of short and disappointing. It was a new tour and not as much was available as might be in the future. We explore some (formerly) secret military bunkers, an arms storage area turned night club turned museum and a cave turned wine cellar. Enjoyable, but they'll probably have more available on it if you go sometime in the future. After the tour, I got the best souvenir of my trip from the National Bank of Serbia: a bank note for 1684 Serbian dinars with my smiling face on it! I grant you that in America we can get these fake bills printed at any mall photo booth...but mine was printed by the National Bank and that makes it legitimate in my brain. This option is also available in Hungary from the Hungarian National Bank (so I hear, never tried there).
The war with the rest of the Balkan states rarely came up in the tour guides information except when discussing the inflation or difficulties brought on by the UN sanctions.
         Caught the train out of Serbia and landed in Budapest the next morning. More on that later...if I feel like it. I'm back in the States now and so visiting with friends and families and getting my life in order has taken precedence over updating this blog on my travels

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