Balkans Road Trip 2018 Part 2 - Banja Luka, Sarajevo
November 03, 2018
Part 1. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9 & Part 10.
The border crossing from Croatia into Bosnia and Herzegovina was easy and quick. At the border , we entered the Republika Srpska (translation "Serb Republic" ) area of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a complicated country to explain. Here Kevin tries to summarize:
After the fall of Yugoslavia in 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence in April 1992. Immediately the Serb majority population regions of Bosnia (with the military assistance of the country of Serbia) tried to expel or murder all non-Serbs within these regions, wanting to create ethnically pure regions allied with the nearby nation of Serbia. They also sought to conquer as much neighboring territory as possible - laying multi-year sieges to some of the largest cities in Bosnia: Sarajevo, Mostar and Bihac. At the end of the Bosnian War in 1995, the UN-mediated Dayton Accords created two separate and distinct political and geographic entities within the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (51% of land area) for the Bosniak and Croat population, the Republic of Srpska (49% of land area) for the Serb population. Most of the territory the Bosnian Serbs acquired through ethnic cleansing, they were permitted to keep - with some minor re-drawing of the final war-time frontlines especially in northwest Bosnia. There are no formal prohibitions for any ethnic group living in any region (some of the displaced/expelled residents moved back to their original cities/villages), however the country is far more ethnically segregated than it was prior to 1991. The boundaries between the Federation and Republika Srpska are not marked with checkpoints. Republika Srpska loudly announces you are entering their territory with a large flag and sign in both Latin and Cyrillic lettering. The Federation does not mark the internal border in any way.
After a wrong turn, we re-studied our paper map and GPS and drove on narrow paved roads through small farming villages to the city of Banja Luka (population 185,000) - the capital of the Republic of Srpska.
It was the only city where we stopped where we got some funny looks. Although a very nice woman explained to us (we think) that parking was free on Sunday. (She spoke no English, and we spoke no Serbian.) We also wanted to stop at an ATM and withdraw Bosnian Marks. This is the currency that is used in Bosnia Herzegovina.
This is a Serbian Orthodox Christian Church. We only had time to take a photo from the outside.
And then, because we had spent so much time at the Jasenovac, Croatia WW2 memorial, we really needed to press on, as Sarajevo, our final destination was some time away, and we wanted to avoid driving at night.
This is when things went rapidly down hill... there is no, or virtually no signage out of Banja Luka indicating the way to Sarajevo. Sarajevo is the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This meant we wasted over 2 hours driving around, heading off into directions where we had no cell phone signal, driving in sweaty, frustrated circles trying to find that one small, tiny sign that indicates "Sarajevo" at a traffic circle. And thereafter, once you make a guess, there are no additional signs until you are out of Srpska that you are indeed on the road to Sarajevo.
I told this story later to our tour guide in Sarajevo. He explained that the Republic of Srpska does not recognize Sarajevo as their capital - hence the lack of signage. Another tourist in our group told his story - about how his train from Srpska ended up at a train station "Sarajevo" but was not the actual Sarajevo but in "East Sarajevo" (in Republika Srpska) far outside the actual city. Our guide also explained that taxi cabs registered with Republika Srpska are not allowed to drive into Bosnia, and have to remove their taxi decals if they accept business into Bosnia proper. I have no idea whether this is factual, as the only experience I had was with the lack of signage. Very confusing and difficult for outsiders. I think Banja Luka would be a worthwhile destination for tourists to add to their trips. They just need to do something with their signage.
Eventually we got on the right road. We did not have any time to stop off at the pretty town of Jajce, as we had previously planned. Instead I snapped these shots from the car...
We reached Sarajevo just as the sun was setting. Luckily both GPS and the iPhone was working, because we needed both forms of navigation to battle through traffic, what seemed like countless traffic circles to get into old town Sarajevo, and finally to our hotel - the Hotel VIP.
The Hotel VIP is very closely located to the Old Town Sarajevo. It's entrance is off what looks like an alley way. It is a small boutique hotel, wonderfully situated and very comfortable. I would definitely stay there again. We were grateful to hand over our keys to the front desk as the parking gymnastics looked incredibly difficult. On this trip, the expertise of locals to be able to squeeze their cars into the tiniest spaces continues to amaze me!
After we checked in, we got a recommendation and directions to a place where we could try the famous Balkan food cevapi (pronounced sheh-vah-pee) -the most amazing grilled sausages. You order by weight - we ran into a couple of issues as we were not acclimated to metric. I can tell you that 200 grams of meat is enormous. The meat comes stuffed in what looks like some kind of pita bread - except it is thicker and seems to absorb the juices better than a traditional pita bread. Raw, sliced onions are served as well. I found oddly enough, that eating the raw onions with the meat actually seemed to help with digestion. (Well that is my story and I am sticking to it.)
The next morning, after a nice breakfast at our hotel, we decided to amble around. The hotel recommended a company (no more than a short walk away) who offered free walking tours. We decided to do a quick explore on our own, and then have the free tour. As per usual, thanks to jet lag we were up quite early. There is the old quarter - and then the Austro Hungarian areas, and then expanding outwards along a river is the rest of the city. Sarajevo is completely surrounded by hills.
We learned all about the brutal significance of those surrounding hills later.
We walked over the bridge and to the spot which started world war 1. On June 28, 1914 a young Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian heir and his wife, Sofia. Our guide on our free walking tour described the unfolding events very dramatically. Of course, we were standing on the very place where the assassination occurred. In the photo below follow the bridge from left to right, and you will see a building with the "Museum" sign. The assassination occurred outside that building as the car turned down the street.
The car convoy had already been attacked once unsuccessfully. Instead of abandoning the trip and whisking the Archduke and his wife to safety, they decided to proceed but change the route. However, someone supposedly forgot to tell the driver. Gavrilo Princip was waiting for the car. Apparently there was a coffee shop at the site where the museum is now. There was some confusion as the car came, and turned (where it was not supposed to go.) He took advantage of the confusion, left the coffee shop and shot the Archduke and his wife dead.
For some, he is still to this day regarded as a Serbian hero.
We managed to ask a tourist to take a photo of the two of us.
The guide books describe Sarajevo as a cross roads between East and West. Byzantium, Ottoman, Roman, Venetian and Viennese empires brought their culture, traditions and religions.
The photo above this is one of the oldest churches/ monasteries in Sarajevo. It was built at the beginning of Ottoman rule.
On our free walking tour.
A cat prowls on a roof above...
We visited the courtyard of one of the many mosques, and home to one of the few publicly owned lunar clocks.
The entrance of the Mosque is beautiful with places for worshipers to place their shoes (after they have bathed their feet in the fountains.)
Or drink from the refreshing water...
Along with Mosques we saw beautiful Catholic cathedrals..
In the square before this church Serbian gunmen opened fire on worshipers who were attending services during the Siege of Sarajevo . It became a practice to paint red rosettes on the sites of these killings as a way to never forget. Over time, and foot traffic most of the rosettes have faded. We found a good example of one later - in a different area. The old town is a curious mixture of old and very old, and of eastern and western influences.
After the walking tour had ended we shared a tasty burek. This is a pastry that comes stuffed with cheese and spinach. (It does come in other variations - such as cheese only, and in some regions it comes stuffed with meat.) And then Kevin wanted to see whether we could find the way ourselves to the Yellow Fortress to get more of an overlook view of the city. We found more narrow cobbled streets that took us up and up.
This is a photo of the cobbled streets...
We walked up the hill past a cemetery filled with those who had perished during the Siege of Sarajevo.
To the Yellow Fortress at the top of the hill...
Where we found a restaurant with views of the hills surrounding the city, and the city below...
We had a great vantage point, and could see the city before us.
We even had kittens.
The afternoon light was wonderful.
As we walked back down we marveled at the narrow streets and creative parking.
The next morning, we explored some more.
and watched a riveting game of chess at a local park...
We had signed up to take (for a fee) the "Fall of Yugoslavia" tour. This tour included details about the Siege of Sarajevo (1992 - 1995) - 1,425 days under siege, and 11,541 people killed.
We were taken to an old hospital - its scars still visible after Serbian forces occupying the surrounding hills had deliberately shelled a working hospital.
I foolishly asked our guide what were they thinking to commit these atrocities in this day and age? His reply? The people that did this have never been punished, and they walk around free to this day.
The Siege of Sarajevo was one of the longest sieges against civilians. The Serbs used a large arsenal of weapons from the former JNA (Yugoslavia National Army) that was headquartered in Belgrade, Serbia. Sarajevans had no few weapons to defend themselves, essentially only what local policemen had, supplemented with what could be smuggled in past the United Nations weapons embargo. Instead all they had was a stubborn will not to give in. But they lived through so much terror. We learned in detail about this in a 2 hour visit to a Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide. We were shocked and horrified by what we saw depicted in pictures, videos, and witness accounts from Sarajevo and rural Bosnian villages.
The UN did nothing except hold the airport (for relief efforts.) The Sarajevan resistance bravely and secretly constructed a tunnel from Sarajevo under the airport to safety beyond. They used this tunnel to bring arms and ammunition to defend civilians.
The people refused to be terrorized. They even held a beauty pageant - "Miss Besieged Sarajevo!"
Our guide was just 7 during the siege. He says he cannot remember what it was like before the siege.
Only a portion of the tunnel remains intact...
In this photo below is a example of a "rose of Sarajevo". These "roses" were used to symbolically mark places where 1 or more Sarajevo residents were killed by a exploding shell. Red paint was used to fill in the holes in concrete created by the fatal shell. Most "roses" have disappeared as new construction and re-paving covered them. However many will be left as permanent reminders. It is stunning to read the statistic that during the 1,425 day siege of Sarajevo, an average of 300 shells a day were launched at the defenseless residents of this relatively small (in area) city. We were walking in exactly the same streets where people walked in fear, going to fetch daily water, food, or wood to burn to keep warm.
Our guide explained that the way the country is now run all Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks elect leaders. The country has 3 of everything. In order for any decisions to happen they have to agree. This rarely happens so nothing gets done. Croat, Serb and Bosniak children do not go to the same school, or learn the same things. They too are separate. It reminds me of Apartheid - except for religion - Serbs = Orthodox Christian, Croats = Catholic, and Bosniak = Muslim.
Our tour took us up into the hills to the site of the Olympic bobsled. The air was fresh and the walk along the bobsled through the forest to our waiting van was peaceful.
The forest was starting to reclaim the concrete- it was sad, but strangely peaceful...
We had a very informative and thought provoking tour. I loved our time in Sarajevo. I would definitely come back and spend more time there. It is in a remarkably beautiful natural setting, a very stimulating street life yet such an incredibly tragic recent history. The large new hillside cemeteries with the thousands of names are painful and essential reminders of lives cut short only 25 years ago.
Our next stop - Mostar.