Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina / Belgrade, Serbia & Montenegro

I’m now in the midst of a whirlwind tour of the capitals of the remaining former Yugoslav republics. I’m also now in the land of ridiculously long country names with unwieldy conjunctions. It’s a lot of long bus rides, and I’d like to be able to spend a longer time in each country, but there are other places I want to get to more so I’m moving pretty fast. Also the travel infrastructure here isn’t particularly easy to deal with. I’ve covered a lot of ground, and there’s a lot to tell, so this will be a bit of a long post, I think.

The first thing that struck me upon entering Bosnia and Herzegovina from Croatia was that all of a sudden there were mosques everywhere. Really, as soon as you cross the border they appear. I suppose I knew that Bosniaks were muslim, but I’d never really made the mental connection that this meant Bosnia was, you know, actually muslim. Also, the landscape changes from coastal Mediterranean rock and brush to these incredible mountains. I learned that that’s where the word Balkan comes from — it’s Turkish for ‘mountain’. The section of the bus ride from Mostar to Sarajevo is particularly impressive. It runs through this great river valley with the type of unreal bright blue-green river that seems to accompany limestone bedrock. And there are dramatic mountains all around, covered in little trees that were just coming into bloom (and some were flowering), so it was all brilliant greens and bright white flowers. I swear the colors in this part of Europe are way more vivid than anything you find in american mountains, which tend to be dark, muted, coniferous deals. If you’ve ever seen “No Man’s Land,” with all those rolling grassy green hills, that’s actually what Bosnia looks like. Crazy place to fight a war. That part of the trip also had long tunnels through the mountains — apparently car tunnels in Bosnia dont have lights; they’re like train tunnels, so you have to use your headlights.

So the preconceived mental image I had of Sarajevo didn’t match the reality at all. I think I had pictured a grand Austrian-style city with neoclassical architecture and grand boulevards and fancy archdukes riding around being assasinated all over. And it had all that, particularly the Austrian architecture. But it also had mosques everywhere with minarets, and calls to prayer throughout the day, and the main pedestrian zone in the middle of the city is a Turkish bazaar. It’s really weird — very Western in almost all respects, but with eastern elements everywhere. And for some reason I hadn’t pictured Sarajevo in mountains, but it’s in a valley surrounded by hills, with neighborhoods flowing up the hillsides overlooking the town. Very pretty — it reminded me of parts of Switzerland. I guess I should have figured on the mountains, as the 1984 winter olympics were in Sarajevo.

Around the turkish bazaar, there’s this great pedestrian zone with lots of outdoor cafes. It was their Labor Day, so the city was just packed with people, which was cool. The central part of the city is cool too because in addition to all the mosques there are catholic churches, a sephardic synagogue, and orthodox churches, all right in the same area. That’s why they say Sarajevo is “the Jerusalem of Europe.” I guess just like the real Jerusalem, that religious diversity doesn’t come without it’s problems. Reminders of the most recent war are still visible everywhere. There are lots of buildings that are just walls, or have bullet and bomb damage. Actually, it’s hard to know what’s war damage and what’s just the usual old building wear-and-tear, but there’s some stuff that’s definitely caused by bombing. On the concrete sidewalks all over there are these splatter-shaped indentations which could only be caused by shell impacts. They’ve filled some of them in with red cement, in memory of those killed on the spot. They call these red flower-shaped splatters “Sarajevo roses”. I love the poetry of that. Sarajevo was also the first Balkan city I’ve been in where there’s an obvious homeless population, and lots of unemployment. You can tell it’s still recovering.

I decided in Sarajevo to treat myself to a fancy hotel. I’d been staying in hostels and old-lady houses for the past week, plus I wanted to have someone do my laundry (there are no laundomats in Dubrovnik, at all, I asked). So I stayed at the Holiday Inn Sarajevo, which was right by the bus station. Turned out that the Holiday Inn was where all the international journalists were holed up during the war. The street it’s on was nicknamed “Sniper’s Alley,” because anyone crossing the street would be picked off by gunmen in the hills. It was right across the street from the old Parliament Tower, which was this huge skyscraper, and is now just a concrete shell. It was the most dramatic damage I saw.. like something from the end of the world.

I saw the spot at the Latin bridge where Franz Ferdinand was assasinated (the Austrian heir, not the overplayed band (and incidentally, someone should start a reactionary punk band called Gavrillo Princip)). It was just indicated by a stone marker. Not much to it, and kind of disappointing, considering that’s where all of WWI started. I guess Bosnia downplays it because the assasination is a source of Serbian pride (under Yugoslav rule the bridge was named after Princip). I’m reading The Guns of August right now, though, so it was pertinent, at least.

Bosnia & Herzegovina is actually two distinct, basically autonomous regions. There’s the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is Croat and Bosniak, and then there’s the Republika Srpska (Serbian Republic, or RS), which is almost all Serbian. The whole thing is a protectorate of the EU, and will be for the forseeable future. There are “EU Reconstruction Area” signs all over. The two regions arnt very big fans of each other. No trains run from Bosnia to Serbia or RS, mostly because the rail lines were all destroyed. No busses run from Sarajevo to Srpska, either, and if you ask how to get to Belgrade at the bus station you get funny looks. To get into Serbia you need to take a bus from the Serbian bus station which is in an RS suburb of Sarajevo. Once you get into RS various quality of life factors seem to drop — it definitely seems like the poorer sibling.

My bus ride through Republika Sprska to the Serbian border was on this old, loud, rickety bus with a lot of the floor replaced with plywood. People were sitting in the aisles. The landscape we went through was more beautiful mountains, higher now I think, because it was mostly fur trees, and there was still snow on the ground in patches. Quite pretty. It was only ruined by the fact that there was garbage everywhere along the road. Really huge piles of trash just lining the roads. There’s clearly no municipal waste management system at all. People seem to either burn their garbage (you see fires all over), or just dump it on the side of the road, or in rivers. I’ve also seen a lot of people on the bus or in cars just throw trash out the windows. Very weird.. that’s something that doesnt even occur to me to do in the US, but it seem to be the done thing in all of Serbia. I guess I have the benefit of years of “dont be a litterbug” campaigns guiding my actions.

As soon as you cross the Drina river into Serbia & Montenegro, all of a sudden the mountains stop and you’re on this enormous plain. Serbia is flat farmland as far as you can see. Belgrade is on this group of little tiny hills overlooking this fertile country, right at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. (Check my word usage.. confluence. That’s not entirely just my usual brilliance. There were all these direction signs in Belgrade with English traslations that said “To Confluence”). It’s really not hard to see why Belgrade has been destroyed by invading armies over 40 times in its history. Pretty desirable location. This is the heart of what was Yugoslavia, and all the Serbian nationalism that goes along with that. Serbia & Montenegro was actually still called Yugoslavia up until 2003, and now they’re two very loosely federated states, with separate governments and currency even. Next year they’ll vote on whether to stay together or become two countries, so I may have caught the very last gasp of the last remaining Yugoslav union.

Belgrade (or Beograd as you say when you’re in the know, like me. Or Београд, for those of you Cyrillic types out there) is huge and busy. The bus/train station complex is insane. And I found it pretty easy to get lost in the city at first. There’s none of this Stari Grad old town center stuff you get in most cities here. It was hot and humid, and kept raining even though the sun was out. There were mosquitoes. I stayed in this flophouse of a hotel right across from the bus station. My room was host to a very particular smell, and some interesting varieties of insect life. Belgrade also was a return to the land of McDonalds.

It wasn’t terrible though. There’s a nice pedestrian commercial zone on the hill in the middle of town. And the old Belgrade fortress on top of the hill, the Kalemegdan citadel, now has a big relaxing park inside of the old (mostly 17th century, brick) walls, which I enjoyed. I think I’d like Belgrade if I stayed longer.

I ate dinner at a traditional serbian restaurant which had things on the menu like “veal head in tripe soup,” “baked kneepads,” and “breaded beef legs.” I had the chicken. (but was really curious if I’d get a whole beef leg, or if that was just a weird translation).

I went to the serbian War Museum in the park, which was really interesting. Lots of artifacts from roman times through the present day. The main take-away lesson I got from it, though, was that eastern euopean military guys used to wear awesome hats. There was also a room dedicated to the 1999 NATO bombings, which was interesting because it was very much pro-serbia. They had a display of types of weapons NATO used which “violated international treaties”. There was also the actual uniform and equipment of an American POW, and pieces of downed american planes. crazy.

Okay, this post has gone on way too long. Can you tell I’m waiting out the rain in an internet cafe? next.. macedonia

I’m sad that nobody has left a comment on this post yet…