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A sunny day-trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina

The hard-drinking, hard-working writer Ernest Hemingway was an explorer-of-sorts, so, while sitting in a café bar named after him one evening in Budva, Montenegro, I decided to go exploring myself – but in a neighbouring nation. The reason? I was disappointed, disheartened even, by the fact that the fortress Citadela (Citadel) situated atop of the Stari Grad (Old Town) appeared underutilised, possibly underdeveloped, whereas the bars below had used the 15th-century fortification walls in order to develop an increasingly fashionable dance scene. With my spirit further reduced after visiting the City Museum (rich in artefacts yet poor in its arrangement), the waiter suggested some ‘spirits’ and maybe a ‘party’, but I was not in the partying mood. The tonic I needed was increasingly unfashionable: a pick-me-up in the form of natural beauty and history. This is why, after navigating through the wave of partygoers on the way back to my hotel, I popped into a travel agency and booked a day trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

Border Montenegro Bosnia HerzegovinaEarly next morning, when walking to the bus station, I faced a deluge of revellers returning from the Sea Dance Festival. Their behaviour, just as I was thinking I had not given Budva a chance, reaffirmed my decision to leave – if only for a day. The border between Montenegro and BiH is not as hotly-disputed as others are, needless to say, and the recent cooling of tensions only serves to considerably quicken crossings: while happily waving at the “Goodbye to Montenegro” sign I nearly missed the “Welcome” to BiH equivalent. Being the only Briton on board (and the first British tourist that our tour guide had escorted on this trip), I had to listen to long passages on Bosnian history in Russian before hearing the – rather a – shorter English version. The language barrier did prove an obstacle at the stop-off point, regrettably, where my inability to communicate with the other members of our group led me (after attempting “Brit-speak”, a polite yet perplexing form of English spoken with foreigners) to close my mouth. And it stayed firmly shut until I reached Trebinje which, it is no exaggeration to say, left me open-mouthed.

The southernmost city in BiH may be just over 80 km from Budva, but it feels like a world away. Never before – neither when in a sunrise hot-air balloon flight over the Nile River’s West Bank (Egypt) nor during a sunset on Koh Khai Nui in Phang Nga Bay (Thailand) – had I witnessed such beauty as I did when standing at the Open Amphitheatre on Crkvina Hill looking down on the sleepy city that lies in the Trebišnjica River valley. That was until I reached Vrelo Bune, however, the spring of the River Buna (a left bank tributary of the Neretva which is hydraulically partially linked with the Trebišnjica), and the Tekke, a 16th-century Sufi monastery, just under 110 km away. The heavenly silence of the Dervish House garden coupled with the harmonious noise of the natural waterfall appear supernatural, ending, for me at least, the mystery of why Blagaj Kasaba (village-town) is considered mystical by so many.

Bosnia Herzegovina

What does remain mystifying, though, is the senseless destruction of the Stari Most (Old Bridge) in Mostar, a city approximately 12 km northwest named after Mostari (bridge-keepers) from medieval times. The splendid stone arc standing today was reconstructed in 2004 after the original bridge, constructed by the Ottoman Turks in 1566, was blown-up by a Bosnian-Croat tank after defying gravity for 427 years. At only 21 meters in height, it might not be the tallest bridge but rebuilding it was nothing short of symbolic to a war-weary populace who needed to bridge a divide. Yet the darkness and disunity of the Nineties, when racism reigned, did not give way in the Noughties to a brighter, more unified future where coexistence was to be the ruling mantra. The pre-war fabric of Mostar, unstitched by the civil war, has yet to be stitched back together again since each side has their own phone network and postal service not to mention university. The new Stari Most is a bridge over troubled waters, to be sure, and remains a bridge crossed near-exclusively by tourists.

Mostar BridgeYet this will do doubt change in the near-future because the increase in tourism to this UNESCO World Heritage Site will compel both communities – Muslim and Christian alike – to cooperate which will, it is hoped, prove catalytic in returning the city to its former multicultural and multi-ethnic glory. The thought of this, while sitting in Hemingway’s after busing it back to Budva, increased my spirits, albeit insufficiently enough to go and party given that intolerance had not significantly decreased. As such, and out of respect for the prematurely removed billboard that campaigned for peace (“Tolerance. Let’s have a coffee”), I ordered a coffee – not very Hemingwayesque, granted – since ordering anything stronger would have been disrespectful to the Muslims buried on the East Bank if less so to those Christians buried on the Western side.

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