The bus journey toward Mostar was long and winding. Even though we had to travel just over 45 kms into Bosnia to get to Mostar, the bus was creeping slowly and had taken nearly an hour just to get even half way. the bus then turned toward Međugorje which was not even on the route map. At Međugorje, the bus stopped, a different bus came to take us to Mostar.

As the Bus entered into Mostar, the stark scenes of conflict come into picture. Buildings shredded by bullets and left to rot. Sharp demarcations of conflict areas are visible. Amidst all this, the thought that was running in my mind was what had i got us into. but as we were already here, i thought let us go ahead with the trip.

We had been given ample instructions to reach the room by Miran and was sufficient to get us comfy, The weather outside was a raging -18C and the heater was hardly sufficient for one of us to be warm. Turns out we had arrived in the harshest winter in the last 10 years in Bosnia. I got a message saying we would been heading out for a trip in the morning to Tito’s secret bunker as Vjetrenica Cave was not available as the ground was covered with ice. We had dinner at a restaurant nearby. To our surprise, the entire Bosnian cuisine is reliant only on 3 elements: Pepper, Salt and Vinegar. No other spices or herbs are used. Method of cooking is either grilled, baked, or fried. meat is beef, fish or pork, nothing else. Chicken and vegetarian dishes have only recently arrived to provide more choice for the tourists.

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Day 1: Tito’s Secret Bunker tour

The tour guide was Asim who was a Bosniak, provided  a little insight into Bosnia. The 3 major communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina are Bosniaks who are Muslims, Bosnian Croats who are Catholics and Bosnian Serbs who are Orthodox Christians. The territorial borders of Bosnia i Herzegovina has 2 parts: Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Repulika Srpska. there are about 5 presidents for each of the 5 aforementioned groups.

Our first stop of the day was Jablanica, where we intended to see the remains of the locomotive bridge. During the Battle of the Neretva in 1943, Jablanica was the site of a successful raid by a group of Partisans led by Josip Broz Tito. A rail bridge over the river was blown up while a train was in the middle of crossing. There is a park and monument commemorating this action at the site. The bridge section and the locomotive which can still be seen in the river gorge are the remains of a film set depicting the battle, from the 1960s.However, due to excessive snow on the road and the associated problems, we could not stop for too long and had to continue.

Our next stop was a nice cafe on the way to the bunker for some coffee. During that coffee break, we continued our conversation and realized so much about the Bosnians. Asim who is Bosniak had a traumatic childhood as he was one of the many who remained in Mostar during the Siege of Mostar between 1991-94. This was part of the Croat Bosnian Civil war and resulted in a huge humanitarian crisis. The war itself started after the death of Josep Tito who until then had managed to suppress the nationalism in the constituent states of Yugoslavia and promote brotherhood. The death of Tito gave way to rise of Nationalism and all the erstwhile brotherhood long gone. However, Bosnia and Herzegovina was a pickle owing to the people within: The Bosnian Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks. Bosniak were the people who converted during the reign of the Ottoman Turks which lasted 300 years and were part of Yugoslavia and after Tito’s demise were under fear of loss of identity and place to live. many fled to Turkey but those who preferred to live back had to deal with the new crisis.

In the midst of this telling, Asim asked us if we were in a hurry to drink coffee and when we replied in the negative, he told us that the people of BiH, mostly the youth, drink coffee slowly to take in taste and also due to rampant unemployment. With this, we started on our journey to the next stop which was the Bunker, Objekat D-0. The journey to the bunker filled with Snow covered lakes with Boats piled on the sides waiting for summer to melt the ice and begin plying again. The bunker in itself is completely indistinguishable on the outside from a 2 story mansion for the rich as it was supposed to be made out to be , along the river Neretva outside of Konjic. The bunker was built at a then cost of 3 billion USD. To get to the bunker, which is guarded by a military garrison and also houses an ammunition manufacturing plant in the vicinity, we have to sign waiver forms in case something happens.

At 12, a guard opened the gates to the Bunker compound and we were met by Elma who was to guide us around. the Bunker is a huge facility capable of housing 500 people or so for 6 months in case of an nuclear attack. The bunker is carved right into a montain and can withstand a 20 Kiloton nuclear bomb.We passed through the rooms housing machinery for air conditioning, water purification, communications, etc. An interesting thing about the bunker now is that it is used as an art gallery hosting a biennial art event by drawing in artists from many countries to exhibit in the bunker.The next one if this year with the last one slated to be in 2019.

Tito had ordered multiple bunkers to be built along the vast country and Objekat D-0 is among the 3 most expensive bunkers built. The other 2 are the underground airport at Bihać in Northwest Bosnia and the Submarine base on Island Vis in Croatia which is hidden in plain sight (which we of course missed as we didn’t have a clue before coming to the bunker). Bihać is now off limits to all but the most adventurous and even though is fraught with risk as the entire area is covered with landmines.

After the bunker tour, we headed towards Idbar dam, which is widely considered as the Failure of the century in Bosnia as it is a dam without a purpose. The dam was to provide irrigation facility and for power generation but it flooded villages and people lost their livelihood. The angry people tore a hole so huge in the wall of the dam that it became a monumental failure. the architect of the disaster committed suicide.

With this our tour came to and end and headed back to Mostar with a heavy heart. We had dinner at Šadrvan which was pretty good. I headed to Black Dog pub for a beer and Swapna headed back to the room. At the pub, i discovered that the pub is owned by an American who visits every year. The pub displays currencies from the Owner’s visit and patches of Police departments he collects. the beers i had were not impressive but then again beer is beer.I headed back for some rest

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Day 2: Bosnia Classics

After having seen so much during the entire tour, we were still eager to get out of the door and see more. The Bosnia and Herzegovina tour was led by Dario and since we were among the only tourists in Bosnia during this time of the year, we had a private tour.

Dario is a Croat-Serb born before the Siege of Mostar and during the conflict was one of the refugees and grew up in different part of the world dabbling as crew member on Cruise ships and manager for restaurants. He calls Dubai his second home and is now in Mostar.

Our tour began with a visit to the Blagaj Islamic monastery and is surrounded by much tranquility and beauty. The monastery was being looked after by an old lady and there were no Dervishes in the monastery. Dario educated us on the customs and purposes of the various rooms in the monastery and how this monastery came into being. We could not take a boat trip into the cave which is where the Buna river begins its journey.

We had a Bosnian coffee quite similar to the Turkish coffee in a small restaurants and got to know more about Dario. Dario had reservation about speaking on the civil war and we did not want to reopen the scars. He was more than willing to speak about his life in Dubai but not so much about his escape from Bosnia and the life thereafter.

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Our next stop was Radimlja Necropolis which has a lot of sarcophagus but not much of an understanding of who built it. The sarcophagus is covered in etchings giving a glimpse in to the life of the one within, such as soldier or farmer or landlord etc.We then continued on to the medieval castle of Pocitelj where we climbed half way to the top but then as we were hardly interested in climbing all the way up, we came back without completing the sight

From there, we headed towards the Kravice waterfalls which are magnificent any time of the year and were especially beautiful considering they were ice covered like dangling Popsicles and were devoid of the tourist bourgeois. We took in the sights and sounds without any noisy chatter. the sunshine which was mostly a wallpaper was inviting for a swim in the waters but we knew better than to dip in.

We had a native Bosnian dish called Burek which is a baked filled pastry made of thin dough and stuffed with cheese or meat, on the way to the Orthodox monastery at Zitomislici. Zitomislici was the site of a genocide where overnight close to 300 Orthodox families were killed by the Croats during the civil war and the entire place burnt down. Now about 30 families live in the area and the monastery has been rebuilt in its original glory. The picture below shows the map of Zitomislici as it is.

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Our last stop on this tour was the Vineyard which are known for the growing a particular type of wine grape called Žilavka which means Strong. The name is symbolic of the rocky terrain in which it grows requiring strong roots to burst through the rocky soil. We could not enjoy seeing the vineyards as it was the wrong season but we were given a bottle of the wine. We could not accept it as we had only carry on luggage and no check in to store the bottle in. We made our way back to Mostar and wanted to do the city tour

Dario accepted to also give a city tour of Mostar and we continued in the same breath after parking the car.The city has evolved over the ages under Turks rule, the Austro-Hungarian rule and finally as part of Yugoslavia. 2 stories that remain with me from the tour are:

  1. Statue of Bruce Lee was erected in a park in Mostar as the people could not decide unanimously and finally settled on Bruce Lee as he is always perceived as fighting for the weak and a just man
  2. The name Mostar comes from the word Most meaning bridge and the story of how the Stari Most, the bridge after which Mostar gets its name, was built. The original bridge was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 to replace an older wooden suspension bridge of dubious stability. Construction began in 1557 and took nine years: according to the inscription the bridge was completed in 974 AH, corresponding to the period between 19 July 1566 and 7 July 1567. Tour directors used to state that the bridge was held together with metal pins and mortar made from the protein of egg whites. Little is known of the building of the bridge, and all that has been preserved in writing are memories and legends and the name of the builder, Mimar Hayruddin (student of Mimar Sinan, the Ottoman architect). Charged under pain of death to construct a bridge of such unprecedented dimensions, the architect reportedly prepared for his own funeral on the day the scaffolding was finally removed from the completed structure. Also, the design was plagiarized from a nearby smaller bridge.

. We ended the day with a hearty dinner at the Divan

Day 3: Mostar to Zagreb

Mostar to Zagreb was a 9 hour bus journey passing by Bihac and Banja Luka which were originally on the travel list but due to paucity of time, we skipped. maybe we will visit another day. We encountered snow storms, icy rivers, frozen lakes and snow capped mountains on the journey and thoroughly enjoyed looking outside the window. We arrived in Zagreb in the evening and headed to Bistro 75 which is a chic place for dinner but the food was fantastic. The Baltic porter was superbly paired with their food.

The last morning in Croatia was spent in the bus headed to the airport with a heavy heart filled with memories of one the most amazing trips we have been on

Nik

P. S.: if you have read all 4 parts till the end then you have read about 9000 words, enough to cover a novella. Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as i did writing. If not, the links are below.

Balkans: Croatia

Balkans: Slovenia

Balkans: Preparations

 

 

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