August 2011

Serbiška Whiskey

People make the difference in Bosnia i Hercegovina


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Bosnia startled us.  We crossed the border from Croatia at Vrpoljie, as planned, and were immediately assaulted by too much noise, too many cars on the roads – with drivers who weren’t too knowledgeable -- too much trash piled up alongside the roads (unless it was in the process of being burned), too many broken sidewalks, the towns spread out like strip malls along the highway for miles, fairly gross commercial developments, more gas stations than could possibly be needed and on and on.  It was a rude shock.  And of course now all the signage was in Cyrillic – usually, but not always, with “normal” versions alongside.  We’d made another of our “country” crossings, and expected a continuation of Croatia’s rural pace and peaceful countryside.  Instead we thought we’d made a wrong turn and were back in Central America!

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As it turned out, during our time here we found that description to be only too apt some of the time.  However, many areas weren’t like that at all.  And that’s BiH in a nutshell.  The country is a conglomeration of peoples who don’t necessarily see eye to eye on a bunch of subjects and who have differing customs and lifestyles.  The country as a whole goes by the name of Bosnia i Hercegovina, but it is actually broken into three semi-autonomous regions.  You’ve got the Republika Srpska (RS) area, inhabited by Serbs; then there’s the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, whose residents are Muslims and Croats; and the tiny Brčka Canton, which is mixed; well, actually the entire country is mixed, the political boundaries presumably mean something, but there are plenty of mosques in the RS and vice versa. The Serbs are Orthodox; the Muslims are called Bosniaks; and the Croats are Catholic.  There is peace among them, and a country flag (although in the RS area a different flag is flying, and to be honest we only saw the national flag one time). Further than that we will not go, but we had no difficulty in gleaning a very basic understanding of the potential causes of strife in the region.  

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We spent about a week here, and ended up enjoying ourselves.  This was true despite our evaluation of the countryside as being nice but nothing special, the attractions not quite stellar, the poorer areas quite sad, and it was way too hot unless we were up in the mountains (which we kept to as best we could).  But the people were terrific, open and friendly; they showed us every courtesy, and we had two remarkable experiences with them during our stay.  

The border crossing went well.  We had no difficulties; we were able to get stamped out of Croatia but just waved on by the Bosnian officer a short distance further along.  Our first order of business was to try and get a good map of the country, as all our resources were a bit sketchy, including Emily, who was suddenly saying “Where’d we go?  Wha’ hoppen?”  And (I’ll get my whining over early on), our Balkans information was coming to us by way of the Lonely Planet Western Balkans book, which was doing a pretty lousy job.  

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So we were looking for either (1) a fuel station with maps or (2) a tourist office with same.  The first option wasn’t panning out as the multitude of stations were all pretty basic.  As to the second, our book listed only about eight tourist offices for the entire country, so we made plans to head south toward Tesanj, where one of them was said to be located, and should be open at the time we expected to arrive.  First off, though, we stopped in Srebrenik, which has a really cool old castle ruin dating from 1333.  It’s high up on the hill above town, reached by a long and winding road that gives you great views along the way and has a terrific spot at the end.  The ruin was good, but the view was awesome.  We were joined by lots of folks who had come to take a look, including several parties of happy teenagers who came for the sunset or later in the evening.  Very pleasant, all of them, and we decided to spend the night, which was sublime.  Did I mention the beautiful harvest moon?

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Then next day we were off to Tesanj, a charming little hill town with a ruined fortress of its own.  It had a museum inside, which had some great info on the history of the town.  Bosnia was a meeting (and battle) ground between northern aggressors and southern aggressors; primarily the Ottomans and the Austro-Hungarians; the early Romans also cruised through at some point.   Tesanj was an important spot.  So lots of history.   We wandered the town, enjoyed the fortress, and (with help) found the tourist office.  It was closed. 

The town has a mosque, and shortly before noon we heard the call to prayer.  It was quite different from what we’d become accustomed to in Morocco.  Deeper, more melodic, far more enjoyable.  We stood, transfixed, just listening.  When it ended, the notes hung on the air for several seconds; it was a delightful experience.

We bought local pears and apples, and got cheerful help figuring out how to ask for what we wanted.  A good experience, even if we were still lacking a good map.  We never did find one, by the way.  The next tourist office we found didn’t have any.  That was our last shot.  Gas stations didn’t have any either; maybe Bosnia is just too confusing for the map folks.

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It was very hot so we headed for higher elevation.  It’s August and all of southern Europe is hot in August.  We had come to Bosnia because it was mountainous, and this was a real plus for us as we traveled the countryside.  We were on our way to the Banja Luka area, with its famous gorges, and had picked a road that would take us up over a pass and into the forests.  We ended up in the mountains above a ski resort, where there was a natural park and trailheads.  We parked in an open area and settled in for the night.  Along came a fellow on a tractor, pulling a tremendously overloaded hay wagon.  We all waved and smiled.  He came back later and got his friends and they all disappeared in the direction the wagon had gone.  We found out later that the load had slipped off the hay wagon when it overturned on a sharp curve; they were going back out to rescue the load and take it where it belonged.  

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When they got all done they came back through and stopped by to tell us we must come and join them for a drink in about 10 minutes.  Their camp was only around the corner.  Well, we did.  We had a terrific time, spending an hour or so, laughing and giggling and drinking a combination of local beer, “šerbiška whiskey”, and very strong (and delicious) local coffee.  They spoke maybe 5 words of English among the dozen or so guys that came and went while we were around. One fellow, Drago, spoke some German, so we managed a bit with that.  We toasted each other in various languages.  They talked about being “camraden”; I commented on everyone being friends, and for just that slightest moment got a look that said not all people in Bosnia are friends.  We quickly went on to something else.  

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It was a real hoot.  They were grilling a whole lamb, had sausages to munch on, some bread, lots of stuff to drink and that was about it. They were having a weekend of the guys being off in the woods.  Or maybe they were there for the whole summer; who knows?  We suspected these were former Army buddies who got together a lot; they lived in the area.  They mostly said they had no wives – “ohne woman” – except for one or two.  They were so open and friendly, and we all were trying to figure out how to be understood, and after a few shots of whiskey, or whatever it was (it was quite good, by the way, they kept calling it schnappes, and also slivovitz, and it was definitely homemade) anything was possible.  We took tons of pictures as night fell.

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We finally bid them good night, after promising to come back for coffee in the morning.  Some of them were up when we returned, some had obviously left and spent the night at the motel at the bottom of the hill, and some were still bedded down by the fire.  Did we want something to eat?  The lamb’s head was waved around a bit; well, no thanks. We “chatted” some more, and enjoyed more coffee; Rick was required to down a shot of schnappes, and then we took off.  It was one of the friendliest groups of guys, and one of the best experiences, we’ve had in all our travels.  We’d been feeling kind of glum about Bosnia, but this experience had turned us around.

By the way, we have since received some emails from Drago, and sent him some pictures so we are in touch.  Isn’t that just too cool!

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We trekked on towards Banja Luka.  The city has a lovely church along the river and we enjoyed the setting a lot.  (LP says it also has a mosque with a minaret that looks like it’s on Viagra; now how helpful is that?)  We looked for a monastery in the nearby countryside, but there was no signage and the roads were hopeless.  Gave up on that and started south through the Vrbas River canyons and gorges to Jajce.  This is a lovely area; another time we would know to make the drive between Jajce and Banja Luka in a northerly direction so the sun would be behind us.  The views would be better and you could enjoy yourself more.  So remember that!

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Jajce (Yite-say) is a famous city with a great history; also, it sits at the junction of two rivers, and has a really large waterfall. We wanted to explore the city, but couldn’t even get across the bridge into town.  There were folks everywhere: a long stream of cars that was fighting for space with the people walking into the center.  We finally figured that it was a special day here, given the demeanor of the people walking by.  Well, if we couldn’t get there, we could at least park and take a walk down to “the most perfect view of the waterfall.”  

It was worth the hike, and the setting is lovely.  All quite nifty, except that the waterfall is being redirected right now because they are correcting an erosion problem.  Wait a few years to come see it in all its glory.  Hiking back up to the Tiger, we discovered we’d been joined – by 5 BMW motorcycles and a total of 9 Austrian riders.  This was the most bikes we’d seen in a long while.  We had a lovely long chat, took bunches of pictures on both sides, and made promises to stay in touch.  It was a lot of fun, and Kathy was given a new BMW hat by one of the guys.  Awesome!  

By the way, we saw lots and lots of very old cars in certain areas, but plenty of newer ones in other areas; depended on the local economy, and we wouldn’t want to over-generalize about which parts of Bosnia are more prosperous.  Politically not smart, and we couldn’t really do it properly anyway.  

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Graveyards are everywhere, of course.  Every village has one and sometimes they appear to be scattered over the countryside.  They are interesting because of the differences between the various religious groups in how they look.  The Muslim sites are simple and stark, with all white markers and no ornamentation, while the Catholic and Orthodox cemeteries are more decorative.  We also saw monuments to young men who died in the wars of the mid-nineties.  Several of them featured not just the names, but also pictures of the dead.  These were very moving. 

The towns seem to be more rebuilt than the areas we had visited in Croatia, and the churches/mosques have been rebuilt, but there are still some bullet holes and devastated homes to be seen.  But most homes have flowers, some are brightly painted, and folks are industriously going on with their lives.

We didn’t do a lot of grocery shopping in Bosnia, as we’d tried to stock up ahead of time.  As it turned out, everything we needed was quite available; some brands carried forward from prior countries.  We did most of our shopping in Muslim areas and I couldn’t find ham, but suspect I didn’t try hard enough.  The bread was very good.  Many products came with information on the box in 8 different languages: RS, GB, MNE, BIH, MK, HR, SLO, AL (your task is to figure out what all that means!).  

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We spent a couple of pleasant hours wandering around Travnik, with an ancient mosque and other interesting old buildings; and a fortress on the hill above town of course.  It was a nice experience, and we think we got some fine pictures.  Afterwards, with the heat in the high 90s, we retreated up into the mountains again, and spent a couple of nice days hanging around the Vlašic ski resort area.  

We found a hotel there with good internet (the lovely Hotel Pahuljica, if you’re in the market), and got ourselves all cooled off again.  The national handball team (who knew!!) was there, training at altitude (we were up over 4000 feet).  As with all ski resorts, in the summertime they look like they need snow to make them come alive.  But lots of folks were vacationing in the condos and houses in the area, the cafes were open, and the hotels were busy.  We enjoyed the cool temps and got caught up on computer work.

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Ready to hit the road again, we wandered through interesting little towns and along very pretty rivers; these countries all have lovely valleys with water meandering through.  Often there will be an old village in a bend of the river; Vranduk on the Bosna River is a famous one because it is built up high on the hillside, and has its own ancient fortress.  To get to it we had to pass through a tiny, one-way tunnel and go around the side of a hill and then climb up a steep and narrow street.  We took a look at the street and decided to view the setting from below.  Still enchanting.

We mostly managed to avoid the industrial pollution that was so evident in some areas, but in passing the outskirts of Zenica we couldn’t ignore a belching factory along the river.  Rick called it the “air apparent.”  And it was sooo ugly!  We’ve forgotten how it used to be – everywhere.  This kind of thing, we believe, must be a carry over from the Soviet era and as we move further east we are seeing more of it; ugly concrete apartment blocks, rusty smoky factories, infrastructure such as roads and bridges in very poor states of repair, etc.

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Eastern Bosnia has some very nice country; we drove through an area that is famous for fly fishing, following lazy streams and crossing funky bridges; all the vegetation looks so healthy – pine trees, ferns, large shrubs.  It was quite pleasant.  There were “country” homes in the area; we weren’t alone in thinking it was nice.  

In heading towards Serbia, we passed through Sarajevo.  Early on in our planning, we had expected to spend a day there as we passed through on this swing, but have now formulated a new plan.  We have several capital cities we want to see; we know we’re really missing an important part of the story if we don’t visit.  But it’s August, and they are all very busy and very, very hot.  We have a route planned for later in the year that will allow us to come back to Sarajevo, Beograd and Zagreb in hopefully cooler and quieter times, so we’ll get another shot.

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But we did drive through Sarajevo anyway, by mistake; we missed the turn for a road that would have skirted the city.  Looks like a cool place, and there are interesting things to see.  So we’ll try to come back!  

East of Sarajaveo you enter a nice mountain range; we went through lots of tunnels as we headed toward Višegrad and the border.  It was a beautiful area, possibly the prettiest single place we’d visited in Bosnia.  We decided to stop for one last night, never wanting to cross a border late in the afternoon.  So, past Višegrad, we turned south along a lovely valley, to see if we could get higher up into the hills and find a quiet spot for the night.  The road started to climb, and at the top of a pass, in a tiny hamlet, we spotted a church up on the top of the ridge.  We turned up a gravel road, wound our way up to the church, and stopped nearby.  There were stunning views in all directions, with fields of haystacks and munching critters under the trees; Serbia was about two kilometers away.  A villager came by and indicated that we were welcome, and that if we needed water it was available next to the church.  So we settled in.

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Well, before long “our” villager was back, inviting us to coffee in the church meeting hall.  A friend was with him; he had the keys to the church (Orthodox), and gave us a complete tour, including showing us the ropes and the bells that he rings every day.  We were able to hear them during the evening and then again in the morning.  They had a different sound than we were used to, a lovely new “voice”.  We toured both the old wooden church, built in 1936, and the new church, which replaced one that had been destroyed in 1992, in the fighting.  Coffee was delightful, although Drago’s was better, we must admit, accompanied again by whiskey, also not quite as smooth as the homemade stuff we’d had earlier, and offers of beer.  We had absolutely no words in common, so hand gestures were all we could use.  But these people were so nice and friendly that we had a lovely time.  Eventually they called in a couple of neighbors who spoke a little English and someone who had a bit of German; it was all just great and we felt very welcome.  

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The following morning there was to be a celebration at the church and we were invited to our friend’s house for coffee prior to the event.  He had a lovely garden of flowers and fruits and vegetables.  We left loaded down with pears and tomatoes and peppers.  Walking past the church, it was close to the beginning of the services; we were introduced to folks, the priest “chatted” with us a bit, and then we hit the road, not wanting to be in the way during this special time for the community.  

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It was a splendid end to our visit to Bosina i Hercegovina, where we have repeatedly felt relaxed and welcome.  In our travels, neither of us has ever felt comfortable seeking folks out to try and meet them, to insert ourselves into their lives; and the lack of a common language can be very intimidating.  But twice now in this small country we’ve been met with open arms by people who do not speak our language but who are interested in what we’re up to, curious about where we’re from, and want to share their hospitality.  Our life-travel-style leads us into odd corners of the countries we visit, and our choices of where we park up for the night can sometimes put us among the people in those odd corners.  It suits us well.  Here, as in other countries we’ve visited, the people we met made all the difference in our experience.

We crossed into Serbia, hoping our experiences there would be equally enjoyable.  Our plans for the year included a return visit to BiH, but for now we said zbogom.

And zbogom to you as well; more soon.  Rick and Kathy and the gang

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