Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Walkin' in the Balkans

With some annual leave days left and the end of service nearing, an out-of-country excursion made perfect sense for the long Easter week off this year. Romania is the place to be for Easter celebrations so we had to be back in country by Holy Thursday. A six-day leave was in session starting on Friday with our early morning train departing from Timisoara into Serbia and ending with a leisurely walk across the border back into Romania the following Thursday.

Yes, I know that after my last venture into Serbia I swore never to return. I lied. Since the last trip there for NYE 2009 my curiosity in the region has been growing. My wonderful experiences in Turkey have helped to peak my interest in Sarajevo, another city where east meets west. Serbia was the necessary stopping point on the way to and from Sarajevo, and under much more ideal conditions my visit to the country that US and NATO planes bombed in the semi-recent past ended up shedding a positive light on the country. Successfully finding our hostel is just one of a few more positive conditions this time around.

Less than ideal was the transportation situation. Train connections left my travel buddy and me sitting in a gas station for hours missing some much needed sleep before even leaving Romania. If one was to look at the distance from Belgrade to Sarajevo on a map they would certainly not say that it takes 10 hours to get from one to the other by train. Unfortunately that is what the man selling the tickets says as you're handing over your money. At least it didn't cost much. Though a collective 20 hours of daylight lost in transportation leaves a sour taste in the mouth of just about any traveler, it didn't seem all that bad. The compartments were surprisingly spacious and the train was not at all crowded leaving us time and space to catch up on sleep and admire the passing countryside. There really wasn't all that much to see until we entered Bosnia-Herzegovina where hills began to rise up giving us a slightly more entertaining country-side to look at and exposing some small villages to our view. I noticed that the country houses in Bosnia were much larger than those in Romania but they didn't appear to be entirely finished. They were surely livable but the bricks and cement in-between were left uncovered. The poverty visible from the train while leaving Belgrade was unseen as we pulled into Sarajevo, though the destruction caused by the war was already visible.

Sarajevo is a small European capital made famous by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which helped to kick off the First World War. My original draw to the Bosnia-Herzegovina capital actually came after visiting Turkey. While talking up Istanbul I remember somebody mentioning that I can get a bit of that Ottoman feel in another European city where it mixes in with some other cultural elements. Originally built by the Ottomans, the oldest part of the city has that bazaar feel with the occasional Mosque. Moving west through the town's center you quickly find yourself surrounded by the architectural influences of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Finally as you continue on into newer parts of town you see the communist influences in the architecture. Though the city appears to be predominately Muslim the old center holds both Catholic and Serbian Orthodox cathedrals along with several smaller mosques and a large synagogue. Our apartment was about half a kilometer up the hill from the Latin Bridge, the sight were the Archduke was shot.

We spent most of our Sarajevo time wandering. The first morning we headed up the hill at the end of town where we found some great views, the city gate, some ruins of a fortress, and a large bombed out building. From that hill we could see in one direction roads pointing through a beautiful mountain pass and in the other direction, the city. The city was in a valley with houses crowding the hill-sides. I could picture Serbian artillery perched on the high ridges above the city. From 1992 to 1995 the city was under siege by Serb forces. Visible signs of the siege can be seen in the large bombed out building at the top of the hill, bullet holes peppering the sides of many of the downtown buildings, the memorial to the children who were killed, and the Sarajevo rose. After lunch our wanderings continued past the souvenir vendors into the crowded walking streets with the occasional terasa where Italian coffee was the drink of choice. We passed both the Catholic and the Serbian Orthodox cathedrals. There was a group of older men playing chess in the park just in front of the Serbian Orthodox church. The chess pieces had to be three feet tall. That evening we returned to the old Ottoman section of town where we entered a bar to get something light to eat and a drink. The owner of the bar insisted that we share a table with some others downstairs rather than stay alone on the second floor. It ended up being a great idea as some local musicians drinking at the end of the room picked up instruments and began playing and singing.

During one of the days we took a two and a half hour morning bus ride to Mostar. Mostar is the largest city in the region of Herzegovina and I had no clue it existed until about two months ago when I asked some fellow volunteers about their trip to Sarajevo. They told me that I had to check out Mostar. The bus ride took us past some mountain villages and into a long beautiful gorge where we followed a turquoise river under rocky walls and jagged peaks. It was significantly warmer in Mostar than in Sarajevo. The sun was shining as we strolled over old stone streets through a courtyard of a mosque and a bazaar. Finally the view opened up to show the famous bridge (stari most) in the center of the old city. It was a stunning sight connecting two rock fortresses hanging high above the fast flowing water of the Neretva River. In a couple of locations I found stones with the phrase "Don't Forget" painted on them referring to the 1993 destruction of the bridge by the Croatian Defense Counsel. I wonder why I only saw it painted in English and not say... Croatian, Bosnian, or Serbian. After some Cevapi for lunch we went down to the water where we found a rock to relax on, dip our feet in, and admire the bridge from below. After more roaming, a drink, and watching a man jump from the high bridge we made our way back to the bus station to conclude our day trip to Mostar.

The final evening in Sarajevo was my favorite. After a traditional coffee we grabbed a couple beers at a supermarket and headed up the hill to check out the sunset. Though it was quite chilly, the city looked really nice as night fell down over the minarets, church steeples, and skyscrapers in the distance. After descending back into town we entered a hookah bar where we sat and chatted with some Bosnians and Turks for the last couple of hours before concluding our final evening in Sarajevo.

Back to Belgrade we went, another day lost to a 10 hour train ride. Such a train ride isn't so bad with good company and a good book handy. I had started a book about environmental conservation given to me by a fellow volunteer. That evening in Belgrade we hung out at the hostel again. The first time through we had stayed there in the common room chatting with three Americans, a few Slovenians, and an Israeli. We were surprised to see that the Israeli was still there when we came back through. I stayed up late into the night with him and the hostel night guy discussing the region and its history.

The final day of our Balkan excursion was dedicated to getting back to Romania. We made a last day decision to try hitching back. Admittedly the highway ramp hitching point was a bit sketchy but with a destination sign and a few pointers from locals we picked up our first ride for about 12kms. The man was very kind. He attempted to communicate with us showing us a map with where we needed to go, and dropping us off at the right spot without accepting any money. From there we found a Romanian driver to the border, walked across the border, and caught another Romanian driver to Timisoara. It was kind of an adventure getting back but I am happy that we decided to come back by car if just to have a break from train travel.

This latest trip has helped peak my interest in the countries that once made up Yugoslavia. Last time leaving Serbia I vowed never to return and this time I left discussing the next trip to the region. Maybe next time we'll make it to Montenegro, Kosovo, or Croatia.

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