Balkan Summer 2022 Trip, Part VI: Dubrovnik to Sarajevo via Mostar

The morning we departed Croatia, we said thank you to the beach house for the wonderful memories. We were sad to leave the coast, and drove alongside it until we began to ascend into the mountains. We had taken the road to Dubrovnik’s north rather than to the south, in order to stop for lunch in Mostar – a city none of us had visited – on our way to Sarajevo. The total distance would be around 165 miles; however, drive time minus stops would be close to 4.5 hours given the mountain roads.

Not long into our journey, before we had even crossed the Croatia-Bosnia border, we saw smoke off in the distance. Initially we didn’t think much of it. But as we continued, it became darker and more ominous, and soon after we ran into a forest-fire related roadblock and detour. The detour wasn’t well-explained by the gruff policeman, and took us a fair distance off the Google Maps path we had launched before leaving beach house wifi – slightly alarming since we were navigating without live internet. However, A saved the day with an offline Snapchat map, something I hadn’t even known existed since I haven’t opened my Snapchat app for eight years. (I know.)

After we jumped that hurdle, we then had a slightly not-so-hilarious situation with one of us, who shall remain unnamed, needing a bathroom where none existed within binocular range of the Bosnian border. After idling in the weeds and hoping inquisitive soldiers wouldn’t appear at any moment and ask us what the hell we were up to, we made it across afterwards without further incident.

The number of Bosnian cities I had been to before this trip (when we visited Višegrad earlier in the week on the way to the Croatian coast) had been limited to my 2015 trip to Sarajevo. Not even V had been to Mostar, but its iconic 16th century bridge is a major draw. Built over nine years by the Ottomans beginning in 1557, it was destroyed in 1993 during the period of heavy conflict in the Balkans. Fortunately it was rebuilt, and reopened in 2004.

Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the River Neretva ~ Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina

The city of Mostar itself was founded in the 1450s, and it does look and feel that ancient when you walk into the old quarter. Parking was a bit of a pain in the neck, but once we found a spot in a chaotic unpaved lot several hundred yards away in the newer part of town, we were happy to come to old town and hunt for some food.

Dude… I hate it when we get off the blue and we’re up in the mountains in the middle of the boonies with no internet. By the way, the image of the front half of our car in Bosnia and the back half in Croatia? Not entiiiirely accurate…

Someone – perhaps V’s brother – had recommended a particular restaurant for us to try. But upon arriving there, the line was so long we just laughed and picked another place that looked perfectly good with plenty of available tables. As it turned out, our food was delicious and we didn’t have to wait long for our waiter to serve it.

Delicious Bosnian food – and teeny-tiny sodas! I needed a couple.

Mostar is the fifth-largest city in Bosnia

One of the things that surprised me most about visiting Mostar was how crowded and difficult to get to the bridge it actually was. Of course, I knew it was a popular area. I didn’t expect to be able to drive up to the bridge and just get out. But I did not expect the whole area to be quite the “tourist trap” it turned out to be.

There were three things besides parking that made seeing the bridge complicated. One, it was crowded. There were people everywhere to the point you could hardly walk. I haven’t really talked much about COVID, but as blog readers may notice reading this summer travel series, you haven’t really seen us wear masks after the first post when we were in Macedonia. We tried to keep away from people and stay outdoors to the extent possible on the trip, but aside from that, we decided to trust our boosters and hygiene process and not think as hard about this as we had been for two years at home. V’s brother had COVID shortly before we arrived and we weren’t going to not see him; V hadn’t seen him in years. However, this was probably the most packed crowd during our travels – even more than Dubrovnik – and it was a little unnerving.

My vintage, rare, impractical, absurdly valuable purse has raw vachetta leather on it and will spot in the rain, so I was grateful the on-again, off-again sprinkling stopped long enough that I didn’t need to suddenly stuff it into the plastic garbage bag I had procured from a friendly waiter at our lunch spot

Two, it was raining off and on and my purse was a fragile purse I couldn’t get wet. Like, not even a drop. It would show forever. So, probably not the best choice to bring on the trip, and I did have a plastic bag to stuff it in if needed. It was a gamble I took because summer is mostly temperate and dry, and the bag is a great size and shape for travel. But the bigger weather issue was actually that I was wearing slick sandals and all the stones got very slippery from the drizzle. I almost fell several times, and after all the times I fell when I had my spinal cord injury a few years back, I am scared half to death of falling. A fortunately was wearing sneakers and V was wearing leather boat shoes, so they held onto me. I was almost afraid to hold their hands lest I take them down with me, too!

And three, the bridge was steeper than I expected. You can tell by looking at it that it comes to a point in the middle, rather than curves. At 29 meters in length, the stone bridge is one of Bosnia’s most-visited landmarks and is considered one of the most prominent examples of Islamic architecture in Europe. If you look at V and A crossing it in the photo below, you can see how slick the stones were in addition to uneven features you have to step over. With all the jostling and nothing to hold onto, it would be easy to trip and I did see an older person stumble and almost fall.

So many people were crowded at the railings taking photos, looking over the side, or watching an obnoxious young (ostensibly local) guy soliciting donations from foreigners to watch him “jump” the 65 or so yards down to the river. (He is partially visible, standing shirtless on the left side railing in the photo above.) We stood and watched a few moments, annoyed by the spectacle, but he was milking it to the max, yelling and carrying on as he berated people individually for money. He obviously wouldn’t be jumping anytime soon, as more and more people crowded into the area to ogle.

So once we felt we’d seen the bridge and taken the photos we wanted, we did a souvenir run and then the three of us were ready to clear out. I had a brief daymare when we returned to the parking lot that some insane situation would unfold whereby we would be blocked by half a dozen cars in every direction and I’d have to bottom out our sedan 4x4ing through all the surrounding debris and weeds to get to the road. Fortunately there was still a narrow exit to the booth and I took it. We were off to Sarajevo.

Little did I know drinking this coffee how much I would soon want to throat-punch our AirBnB host

Our AirBnB host met us in person and treated us to a coffee in the cafe downstairs from the apartment we’d reserved. Parking in Sarajevo can be limited, and difficult, and we had left the car in the closest place I could find – a paid, outdoor public lot a block away. He accompanied us after our pleasant coffee chat to pick it up, so he could ride with us and show us where to park at his place. I tried hard not to be annoyed, because the parking instructions could have really been explained in the listing.

However, I’m familiar with the double-whammy cultural phenomenons of hospitality and paternalism, so I just smiled and agreed as we all climbed in. I also ignored the dismissive motioning of the parking attendant trying to direct me how to back out of a totally normal parking spot… and exit a totally normal parking lot. Actually A and I may have ranted about it to one another in English a little. Ha ha! This was around the time of the trip where the culture shock of random men’s behavior towards women – and towards us in particular – was starting to grate on both of our nerves, something V was a little more insulated from for all the reasons. These guys had no idea I had just taken a nearly 8,000 mile road trip by myself across the United States and absolutely did *not* require their smug assistance for anything.

But ultimately our host got me so turned around and confused by his utter failure to communicate in complete sentences (and with V there, I can’t even blame a language barrier), I literally ended up tapping the front bumper against a post as he directed me one wrong way at the last moment after another with absolutely no clarity. He stressed me out that much. Me bumping a car into a post while parking or turning around is almost unheard of. I think it has happened three times in 29 years? And I’ve never had an at-fault accident with another car. So I was most genuinely displeased I let him get to me like that.

And when I saw where we were going, I could have died laughing but it was too soon. Literally, it would have been as simple as him just explaining: It’s too tight an angle to make a right turn in, so go up here and overshoot, hang a U, come back down, and approach it from the left. Then swing left once you get into the courtyard and back in as tight as you can to the shed. That would have been all he needed to say to me. But my man made it so unnecessarily hard. You kind of had to see it to believe it. In a six-speed manual transmission in the narrow hills of Sarajevo with little cars zipping by everywhere. It’s only a little funny now. I still need more time. For what it’s worth, his AirBnB was well-appointed, a good value, and he left us a terrific review. So, we were mad for five minutes and then we vented it out and tried to laugh it off.

The night we arrived was the first night of the weeklong Sarajevo Film Festival, and I saw guests arriving for what looked like a fabulous opening party during my evening walk

Sarajevo is such a great city, and a city I’ve always been fascinated with. As I mentioned before, I had once visited in 2015 while we were posted to Tashkent, and V had visited about 11 years before we met, during a work trip circa 1995.

This time we got to visit V’s high school friend M and his partner M, who both work with refugees, and my friend J who I met in grad school in Sydney in 2005, who was born in Belgrade but who has been a German diplomat with the equivalent of USAID for years. She is posted to Sarajevo with her husband C and daughters S and M. It was my first time meeting M, who was born since my 2015 visit, when S herself was only about two.

V with C and baby M

Some people know Sarajevo as the city where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, sparking World War I and the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Others remember the city as the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, during its Yugoslav heyday. Still others equate Sarajevo with “sniper alley” and a city under siege between April 1992 and February 1996 – the longest attack on a capital city in modern warfare. In the end, nearly 14,000 people died in that Siege of Sarajevo, including more than 5,000 civilians.

Aside from my Serbian friend J who I studied with in grad school in Sydney who has been on a diplomatic assignment in Sarajevo herself for the past several years with her husband C and daughters S and M, V’s close high school friend M works there for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Bosnia, along with his psychologist partner M who is from Peru but also works with refugees – so we had many people to visit in a short time!

I also honestly do think of these historical events when I think of Sarajevo. I guess it would be hard not to. I have stood in the exact spot at the Latin Bridge where Ferdinand, presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was shot to death along with his wife as they rode in their car along the River Miljacka. I have visited the old slaloms where the Olympic athletes competed almost 40 years ago, now covered in weeds and graffiti.

And certainly for me most soberingly, I have been confronted with the apartment and commercial buildings full of bullet holes and damage from extensive shelling. Even today, as far as I can tell, much of the damage from the conflicts of the 1990s is still visible. It made me wonder how people who live there feel seeing it every day as they go about their daily lives, and particularly people who lived through it firsthand.

So I asked a guy I spent a few hours with on my first visit as he colored my hair. A native Sarajevan, E was about 10 years older than me. As he blasted Alice in Chains in his salon, he told me he never stops seeing the damage. He said you get used to it, but you don’t forget. I understood this somehow, this not getting inured to something painful just by looking at it a lot.

But there are other things I love and think about when I think about Sarajevo, too.

Sarajevo scenes from our visit

Sarajevo is a meeting place of cultures. When you’re in the city, you can feel it is a melting pot – of Islam, of Catholicism, of Eastern Orthodoxy, of Judaism. And somehow you can also feel that all of these people – Bosnians and foreigners alike – all feel the city belongs to them. There is a feeling of community, ownership, and of belonging that I can feel even looking in from the outside.

It is also a physically beautiful place to me. The city is nestled in the Dinaric Alps and the neighborhoods and homes extend far up into the mountains that ring the city proper. The winter pollution can be significant, but it didn’t stop me from bidding three different jobs at our embassy in Sarajevo when I bid for my fourth tour. I am not sad for the DC job I got, but I would have been elated to end up in Sarajevo, and I hope someday I still might. All in all, we just passed through for two nights to show the city to A and greet our friends, so we didn’t have time to do too much. But I’m glad we got to see it and I hope someday to go back.

In a small-world twist, a military family we knew while posted in Tashkent has since been posted to Sarajevo with their children, and J and her family – happily and by choice – returned last autumn to their first diplomatic posting: Tashkent, where they served for a few years before we arrived, just missing us as they departed for Sarajevo.

A small world, indeed.

Having coffee and baklava with J in Baščaršija, the old Sarajevo market dating back to the 1400s which was the central Balkans’ largest trading center during the 16th and 17th centuries

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Sarah W Gaer

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