I crossed the border from Serbia by coach. It was a sunny April day. We descended from the forested hills and down into a huge valley.
Finally the bus let us off in Sarajevo – the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Oddly, we were set down on a residential street. There were hardly any cars going by and we did not seem to be anywhere near the centre of the city. Only a handful of people had been aboard the bus and they were all picked up by waiting friends with cars or else sauntered off into the nearby houses. The houses were mostly pale in colour and two storeys high. It was a prepossessing area.
I carried my bag and headed towards some distant skyscrapers. I did not have a rucksack. It was a sausage shaped bag – if that makes any sense – with two straps. This cyan Samsonite bag was uncomfortable to carry. A few ragged children played in the street. I walked for about a mile and did not see a bus stop or a taxi rank. There was still a long way to go. Then I saw a plane coming in to land near me. That metal fence to my left had the airport runway behind it. I walked to the airport terminal building. I took the opportunity to withdraw some of the local currency from an ATM – the convertible mark. Mark as in the deutschmark? The deutschmark had ceased to exist a few years before. The initials of this currency are KM. So I suppose it is konvertible not convertible in the Bosniak language. I took the opportunity to wander around the building whilst buying a drink and taking a slazenger. The concourse was airy and cleaned to a polish. I read a memorial plaque on the wall ”A la memoire de dix soldats francais morts pour la paix.” These Frenchmen had been guarding the airport during the siege of Sarajevo 1993-95. The United Nations was there to allow humanitarian aid in. The UN would not get involved in the fighting because that would be taking sides. The Serb forces persistently breached UN resolutions. So towards the end the UN authorised air strikes against the Serb military and that ended the conflict.
I got a taxi to a hostel in the centre of town. I lodged in a hostel in the old town. It was a small and poorly equipped place. There was a kitchen area where backpackers bustled. I spoke to a Korean couple there. The man spoke decent English but his girlfriend could not converse so readily. ”Only listening” she told me when I asked her some anodyne question. It was a pokey hostel but not a bad one was they go. There was one thing that I took grave exception to. One could not put loo roll down the lavatory but had to throw it in the bin. It did not always land dirty side down and the stench made me retch. Thank God it wa snot high summer.
I wandered around the winding and curious lanes of the old town. These were impassable to traffic. Most of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovian are Muslims. Most are secular Muslims. Some are observant and there is nothing amiss with that. If someone eschews alcohol, eats halal, prays fives times a day in the direction of the Ka’aba etc… this is not bad at all.
I passed a large mosque by a pedestrian street. The most had a fence around it and there was a large open area in front of the mosque. So the mosque was set back from the street. I heard the passionate chanting of female voices. There was no mistaking the ardency of these orisons. I was perplexed as to why I was hearing feminine voices. Were there boys with unbroken voices praying in there. Then I caught sight of a few of those uttering these incantations. They were women. I had never seen an all female mosque before.
I had a good walk around these storied and winding lanes. There were many small town squares. I walked into an Orthodox Church.
I walked along the river on both banks. I saw where the synagogue was. I wondered which side the Jewish communion had taken in the internecine conflict of the 1990s. There was also an old library.
I crossed the Latin Bridge. I saw the spot where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was fatally shot. There was a museum there that was shut when I was in Sarajevo. The Museum of the Assasination told all there was to know about this fateful event. One death lead by a chain reaction to the deaths of sixteeen millions. Of course there were many points when the bloodletting could have been averted. It is much easier said than done. It is hard to exaggerate all that flowed from this assasination. People assume it was all bad. That depends on one’s outlook. It is hard to see how an independent Poland would have come about had it not been for this war or indeed Yugoslavia etc… etc… It reminds me of what they say in te film ”If….” – ”You can change the world with a bullet in the right place.”
I met two Spanish girls in my hostel. I shall invent names for them – Lorenza and Marilena. Lorenza had a typical European complexion and was a little below middle height. She had light brown hair and spoke confident English. Marilena was very dark skinned for a white girl and had jet black hair. She spoke no ENglish. They had been in Italy studying the language.
I caught the train from the station down towards Dubrovnik. In the station I met Lorenxa and Marilena. I had not spoken to them much before. We sat beside each other and chatted merrily. For Marilena’s sake we spoke Spanish. My halting Spanish slowly came back to me. I said I was lucky to meet ”doS Espanolas guapas”. They chuntered with embarrassment and satisfaction.
The train whistled through pretty mountains as darkness slowly fell. I decided on a change of plan. I would stay with them in Mostar. They readily accepted. I had been on my own so much. I liked their company anf they mine. Plus I had taken a shine to them.
We left the train in the small mountain town of Mostar. This unfortunate town gained infamy in the Yugoslav War for the horrendous bombardment it suffered. A British nurse who insisted on staying there through the worst of it was dubbed the Angel of Mostar. We soon found a cheap hotel and booked in. My room was semi-connected to theirs. Lorenza remakred that my Spanish was gradually coming back to me. We went for dinner together. I had to get more konvertible marks out. I noticed from the ATMs that most of the banks were German.
Mostar is a very low rise town. The buildings are mostly khaki and neither gorgeous not horrid. It seems fairly historic which is impressive considering how much it was pounded by Serb artillery.
Next morning we had hardly any time. There was one bus a day to Dubrovnik and it left half an hour after we had breakfast. We hastened to the bus station and bought tickets. I risked missing the bus to take a brief stroll and admire the bridge over the raging torrent many metres beneath. Mostar means ”old bridge”/ The centuries old bridge was destroyed by an artillery salvo during the war and a new bridge had only just been constructed over the gorge. It was a shame to press on. I should have taken a day to wander aorund this town. I perhaps made the mistake of hurrying. But I was still fantasising that one of the girls might take the bet. I was flirting with them with less and less finesse.
We boarded the bus and our way wound through the stony mountains. It was a sunny day and a pity to ebe in a vehicle. After a few hours the mountains parted and we caught a glimpse of the sheen off the waves of the Adriatic. The bus twisted down the narrow roads towards the coast. There was only a very thin strip of flat land between the Dinaric Alps and the sea. We crossed the border into Croatia.