Crossing the border from Croatia to Bosnia was like entering an alternate reality, especially as compared to the beautiful touristy coastal cities of Croatia… Do you remember in elementary school when the teacher showed you a series of objects and you had to select the object that didn’t fit? Well, if you listed the countries in Europe that we had visited so far (Poland, Austria, Croatia, and Bosnia) and said “which one doesn’t fit?” The answer would definitely be Bosnia.
Bosnia and Herzegovina used to part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, and after its dissolution, Bosnia fought a long and bitter ethnic war in the early 1990s. So driving through Bosnia, seeing the remains of bombed out buildings is a pretty common occurrence. The war was the result of ethnic conflict between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks, and the war crimes committed by and against the warring ethnic groups included mass rape and genocide. The scars run deep, especially given that the war occurred in the recent past. It is ever-present in the minds of the older Bosnians who remember the atrocities, and every tour we went on was given through the perspective of a different ethnic group. In Mostar, our tour guide was a Bosniak, and we heard about the war from the Bosniak Muslim perspective. In Sarajevo, our tour guide was the daughter of a Bosniak Muslim and a Orthodox Serb, and she refused to pick a side. She just wanted to be identified as “Bosnian,” but apparently in Bosnia you must choose an ethnicity/religion instead of just a nationality. I found the historical side of our visit to Bosnia very engaging; I didn’t know much about the Yugoslav War before our trip to Bosnia, but now I’m definitely inspired to pick up a book about the subject and educate myself.
One of the most interesting things I learned on our tour in Bosnia was that even death announcements are color-coded by ethnicity/religious status. A bold black border surrounding the death notice indicates that the deceased was a Christian. The green border with the crescent at the top indicates that the deceased was Muslim. And the white death notice indicates agnosticism or atheism; after seeing the damage religion has wrought in Bosnia, I can’t really blame anyone with the white border for refusing to take a side.
Given that Bosnia has a sizable Muslim population, mosques and minarets are a fixture of the scenery in Bosnia. Having lived in Egypt and traveled extensively in the Middle East, I’m a huge fan of mosques and their architecture; I think they added character to the Bosnian landscape, especially seeing as Tori and I had only gotten to tour churches thus far on our trip.
Our first stop in Bosnia was in the town of Mostar, which is pretty much a tourist trap if I’m being honest. Mostar’s claim to fame is the Old Bridge that was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century. [In case you’re wondering how Bosnia came to have such a significant Muslim population, that’s your answer right there–Ottoman occupation.] The Old Bridge was considered one of the most “exemplary pieces of Islamic architecture in the Balkans,” but unfortunately for Mostar (and all of Bosnia) the bridge was shelled and destroyed during the 18 month siege on the town during the Yugoslav War. So the famous bridge that everyone flocks to Mostar to see is actually just a replication; albeit a very good one. The reconstruction cost 15 million dollars and was done according to the original specifications so the new bridge looks exactly like the Old Bridge. This new Old Bridge even made the UNESCO World Heritage List, so I guess the replication must be pretty good. Even though its not the original, its still quite impressive to see, I’ll give it that.
Following our stop in Mostar we moved onto the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina– Sarajevo. My only prior knowledge of this city was a Christmas song by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, but I enjoyed our visit there nonetheless. Our tour guide in Sarajevo was probably the best we had our whole trip, and she did a great job of keeping things interesting and entertaining. One of the most important stops on the tour was the street corner in Sarajevo where the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie were assassinated, starting a domino effect that led to the beginning of World War I. What a sad thing to be the city’s biggest claim to fame.
We had some free time in Sarajevo, and Tori and I were determined to find something special for our Mom. We wandered into a little shop selling Turkish coffee sets (which of course they called Bosnian coffee sets), and the shop owner who came out to help us spoke English very well. We found a beautiful coffee set that we loved, and after he heard that we hadn’t tried Bosnian coffee, he insisted on calling a nearby coffee shop and having it delivered. We got to talking while drinking our coffee with him, and it turns out that he lives in the US for half of the year, working as a computer contractor at a university in Ohio. We marveled at what a small world it is, because Tori and I are from Ohio! We asked him what university he worked at, and his answer was Denison University in Granville, which is crazy because that’s the university Tori is attending this fall as a freshman. How crazy is that? We had such a nice visit with him, and we ended up buying the coffee set for our mother. Mission accomplished 🙂
Tori and I were also fascinated by the coffee culture in Bosnia; coffee is used to communicate so many things nonverbally in Bosnian culture. For example, if you have a group of people come over and you don’t want someone in particular to return, you simply make sure that their coffee is cold and bad. Then they know that they are not welcome, and you don’t have to say a word out-loud. Coffee is also a very important part of courtship and proposals. A girl might put salt in her suitor’s coffee instead of sugar as a test; if he drinks the whole cup without complaint, he must truly love her. When parents come to broker their sons’ engagements, the question is not immediately answered. The second cup of coffee, if delivered hot and strong, means that the proposal has been accepted. As a huge coffee lover, I adored this aspect of Bosnian culture!
Our time in Bosnia passed quickly, but I think it was the most historically and culturally enriching part of our Euro-trip. Or at least it ties with Poland, because I found Auschwitz and the Jewish history of Krakow to be equally fascinating. I think Bosnia definitely exceeded my expectations, because I didn’t expect to be so moved by Bosnia’s recent history and their struggle to move on into the future. Bosnia was the dark-horse in our itinerary, but it turned out to be a great stop.
I was excited as we drove back to Slovenia, because a very important day was rapidly approaching… my 24th birthday! To hear how we celebrated in Ljubljana (pronounced “lee-oob-lee-yana”) read on to the next blog post 🙂