Sunday, November 23, 2008

Waiting in Sarajevo

I’m sitting in the Sarajevo bus station though it’s a train to Zagreb I’m catching in three hours time. It’s warmer here and you can sit down without having to buy something, unlike the train station which has plenty of cafes but nothing approximating a waiting room.

I don’t expect much sleep with a rattling night ahead. The train has got to be better than a bus though there’ll be a border crossing into Croatia around 3am to contend with, a process I'm becoming intimately familiar with. I’ve already had three goes with the Croatian authorities today. My bus left Dubrovnik early and we passed the string of islands that fill our ride up the coast before we hit the strange Neum corridor which is about 15km of Bosnian coastline and the country’s only access to the Adriatic.

The corridor was defaulted in 1699 by the Republic of Dubrovnik to the Ottomans in the Treaty of Karlowitz. The wealthy merchants of Dubrovnik were worried by the approach of the Venetians and were happy to have an Ottoman buffer between them. The corridor was inherited by Yugoslavia, and now the sovereign state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatia places a passport check going in and out of the corridor but there is no Bosnian presence on either side. Nor it seemed were there any connecting roads with Sarajevo in the corridor. In the town of Neum itself where we stopped for coffee, the restaurant owner showed his colours with a Croatian scarf placed prominently on the bar and he accepted only Croatian money or euros.

I passed through Croatian borders a third time further north along the coastal plain where the Sarajevo road splits from the Split road. This time the Bosnians were on display complete with their national insignia. It was not far to the city of Mostar, though the winding road meant it took another hour. The journey was sensational through deep ravines alongside the rushing Neretva River surrounded by scrubby mountains on both sides. I was trigger happy with the camera for most of the way.

A funny thing happened in Mostar. I was hoping for a photo of the famous ‘stari most’ (old bridge), the symbol of the city which was destroyed by the Croatians in the 1993 war and subsequently meticulously rebuilt. There was no view of the bridge on the bus journey itself but I saw a sign pointing to it as we headed towards the bus station. When we got to the station, the bus driver turned off the engine and said words to the effect of ‘dieci minuti’ roughly translated that we had ten minutes here before we pulled out. I calculated it might be possible to run back to the river and catch a quick photo of the bridge. But as I started running from the station I began to think this was madness, it might be at least five minutes there and then I needed to get back again too.

I gave myself four minutes to get there. It took me almost exactly four minutes of full pelt run to get to the river. I eagerly peered over the bridge but there was no sign of the famous ‘stari most’ in either direction. I took photos anyway and realised I’d better rush back to the bus. Only on the way back did it occur to me that I might have been on the bridge itself, though from knowing its distinctive shape, I doubt it. It turned out the bridge was around a bend, and not visible from where I stood. But with the time ticking, I rushed back to the bus, puffing madly. To add insult to the injury of not finding the bridge, the bus driver waited the best part of 20 minutes anyway. As we pulled out, it was obvious there was another bridge the other side of the station that was even closer, no more than one minute walk away. Oh well, there’s a reason to return to Mostar some day.

(pic: The bridge I did not see in Mostar).

I made up for the disappointment with fabulous scenery shots elsewhere as the views got even better between Mostar and Sarajevo. Coming in to the capital, the views turned grim. The grey and closing weather didn’t help but any of the high Stalinist-looking flats could easily have hosted sniper alley. Thankfully the inner town was much nicer. I dropped my bags at the train station and walked along the river to the centre. It is a beautiful and ornate old town, very stately and grand. Most of the buildings have been rebuilt after the war.

I can see why Archduke Franz Ferdinand might have liked it here until he made it to the bridge where Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot him in 1914, which knocked down several royal houses of cards and led to the death of millions in World War I. Oddly enough Sarajevo itself escaped any further damage in that war. However I can also see the result of the gunfire of more recent bouts of Serb nationalism. I pass several pock-marked and bullet-ridden buildings. The siege of Sarajevo lasted four years from 1992-1996 with Serb forces high on the hills taking pot shots at anything that moved below. I’m wondering whereabouts in the city is their entity, the mysterious Republika Srpska?

No comments: