Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Balkan Bridging

I was going to call this tale, Bosnia, Bed Bugs and Belgrade .. because .. well that basically sums up my last week. But instead here is a tale about recent war torn places moving ahead in leaps and bounds and an escape from the dreadful crowded coast into relative tourist free areas. A brilliant week in my books.

First destination out of the Adriatic tourist mecca was the fabulous city of Mostar. Location of the famous stari most (old bridge), and site of the front line of the war between the Croats and Serbs. Considering the war finished over 10 years ago, I was still amazed at the number of ruined and damaged buildings littering the city. Taking a walk around the area bordering along the former front line, the bullet holes still pock marking almost all the architecture is a shock. Signs in Bosnian and English pronouncing you not to enter the damaged buildings is common.

The old town was a pure delight. Partially full of tourist yes, but nothing like crazy Dubrovnik. It is sliced through by the strangely freezing river and crossed by the bridge (it was a shame about the river because when it is heatwave conditions of over 40 degrees in the shade, a dip would have been good, but not with the 11 degree water). The bridge was destroyed during the war in 1993 to much world outrage, but it is great to see it rebuilt now and the local pastime of jumping off is still taking being done. Though it is a tad touristy to see a hat being passed around to the package tour Americans and Germans, and then seeing the jumper surveying the takings. But seeing him jump from 25 metres up, into freezing water is still very impressive. I am glad the packagers paid for the three times I saw it.

Stari Most

Mostar is also the scene of my first assent up a mosque's minaret and certainly one of my highlights. I had previously thought this activity was strictly off limits to foreigners in Muslim regions, but not so in welcoming Bosnia. I climbed up and up the spiral stairs of one of the many little mosques around the town and popped out with fantastic views over it all. I could have stayed for a long time with a picnic, but eventually I had to head down before I would have got blasted by the loudspeakers call to pray.

An early morning train trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina's capital, Sarajevo, scene of winter olympics and wars, was next up. This town I loved. And if it wasn't for the filthy accommodation - which yes was cheap, but also came with a host of bed bugs that seemed to like my lovely blood - it would rank as one of my favourite destination.

Compact and easy to get around. A brilliant nightlife and cafe scene. And a beautiful location surrounded by hills, that was also its bane during the war when it was surrounded by the Serbs who sieged it for almost 4 years - a longer siege than Stalingrad and the longest siege in modern warfare. It is hard to believe that there were Serbian snipers hiding in the hills picking off everyone from old grandmothers to children on a day to day basis. I saw some footage shot during the war after I had been there for a few days and images of burning cars and people running to dodge the sniper's rifle on the same street I had just walked down is hard to get your head around.

Old Town

The bed bugs almost drove me out of town and in reality I should have just moved to better accommodation, but I was having such a good time meeting other backpackers for once, I stuck around and partied with them for a while before shipping out. Reaching Belgrade by an overnight bus with a few of the other travellers heading the same way was another typical travel experience. I hate overnight buses, especially when there is a border crossing at 3 in the morning along the way. But I shall say no more on that.

Belgrade was a serious pleasant surprise. The city at the confluence of two major rivers, the Sava and the mighty Danube, is not the most attractive but still beautiful in its own way, with proper boulevards and very beautiful people to fill them (if anyone can tell me why Eastern Europe has more beautiful girls than else where, please do). The place is sort of low on attractions, but it is high on the fun. And the accommodation helped here. I found a nice little hostel in the centre of the city and hung out there for 4 nights - the longest stop off so far on the trip (I guess I am now starting to slow down a bit after rushing through some other parts).

It is a genuinely big modern city and it doesn't at all look like one that was being bombed by NATO only 7 years ago. Although you can still see the smashed up and destroyed Military headquarters building without having to walk far - guess they want to remind themselves what NATO did. Also it was interesting seeing the Military Museum and seeing the recent addition of the Kosovo war relics. A room filled with computers, cluster bomb bits, an American soldiers uniform, various guns and a chunk of the F117 stealth fighter they managed to shoot down, amongst others. The big Hummer outside is also a sure sign of the finger they are flicking to the west. Quite a few American tourist come though and don't get hassled. The past is the past here.

My Humvee was captured

And so I am currently in another B, Budapest, and I am slowing seeing the sights but more importantly I am using it as a way point destination to sort out a few upcoming travel adventures, namely getting a Ukrainian visa and planning a trip to the Caucasus region later (a Russian visa was considered, but it is nigh impossible to do while here). A trip to Romania is on the cards - I really should see Transylvania while I am in the neighbourhood - but those Romanians really don't like us and we have to jump through some serious hoops to get a visa (I guess we screw them in return). But it should be worth it I think.

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