Two people. One Quechua tent. A lot of luggage. One objective: reach Sarajevo in three days
When I informed my entourage that I had the intention of going to visit Bosnia during my summer holidays, people reacted by looking at me askance.
This feedback is more than understandable but based on consideration, manifestly unfounded.
To be honest, Bosnia has not been mentioned among the most renowned tourist destinations so far and it is still fighting to overcome the conflict nightmare but, public administration and citizens are doing their best to accommodate foreign tourists. Despite Sarajevo still being besieged by communist-era barracks, the rebuilt city centre has become a charming mix of modern style and traditions.
Bars, restaurants, shops, trade centres and souvenir shops are everywhere even if cemeteries still hold the record in terms of presence.
And, of course, when I tried to explain to my worried typical Italian mother that the war was over and everything was fine in Bosnia, she did not entirely believe me. She lived the conflict in “first person” by watching TV and following disquieting news in 1992 and she will never forget that.
She also forms part of a generation that did not travel as much as mine as she can not even image how Bosnia has changed since 1992.
At that time, in 1992, I was 7 years old and I was too young to completely understand what was going on, but, when I got to high school everything became clearer. The closest conflict was happening at only 1000 kms from my home and, while people were still enjoying holidays in the neighboring country, Croatia, Srebrenica, the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II was taking place.
That is why I decided to visit the country.
Especially because Bosnia and Serbia’s story proves that everything could change and war could come to your home without notice.
One day people live together, the day after the same people are divided by barbed wire. To avoid this, the next generations have to make an enormous effort to not forget or take peace for granted.
Do not forget Mostar
Firstly, you must be aware of the fact that Mostar is the last tourist place provided with a remarkable road sign. After it, you will get to No Man’s Land.
No tourist information. No highway. No bars. Nothing at all. But the best is yet to come.
If you arrive from Split, you will follow the route to Medjugorje. Once you get to the border that divides Croatia from Bosnia, you will notice a motorway sign. What a pleasant surprise, except that, once you try to take that road, you will be obliged to turn around and continue your journey by taking the B roads. The motto is always the same: when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
The B roads are an unmissable chance to discover adorable towns and get in touch with the bucolic atmosphere.
Once you cross the frontier, you realize immediately how deep the gap is between Croatia, that could invest in modernizing the country by counting on tourism, and Bosnia that has just been exposed to the European dream.
Despite that, the country looks like a big uncontaminated lung wishful to be discovered.
Mostar, our first stop, is well organised and fully equipped to welcome both groups of tourists and individuals.
The car park, located a few metres from the city centre, costs only one Euro per day and is the best solution for travelers carrying luggage.
The city centre is preceded by a passage prosperous in shops and travel agencies which organise different sorts of guided tours.
The famous bridge, built in the XVI century and destroyed in 1993, has recently been reconstructed and represents the country’s landmark. Though Mostar was one of the frontlines, the city does not show traces of the conflict at least in appearance. The milestone lying on the rock bridge step that exhorts us not to forget the past, is used as an additional shelf of the souvenir shop.
After all, business is less painful than memories.
Sarajevo, the Jerusalem of Europe
Sarajevo has recently been visited by Pope Francis who called it the Jerusalem of Europe because of its mix of culture, religions and nations.
This diverse blend is obvious to all, but not to us.
Women with chadors, hijabs and niqads. Women with headscarves. Women with loose long blond hair. Men with long beards, with goatees, gorgeous students and elegant businessmen. All together.
To me this sounds amazing. I come from a country that, in the last thirty years, has been assaulted by asylum seekers, migrants, refugees from everywhere, but is not able to accept them as part of the whole entity even when and if strangers obtain citizenship and speak Italian perfectly.
I was so absorbed in my deep thoughts that I did not realise that a young lady with a hijab was asking me what I preferred to eat and drink.
It was ten o’clock and she was working as a waitress. Really I was speechless. I had never seen that. In my country, girls with hijabs do not work as waitresses, especially during the night.
This makes me sad and happy at the same time.
Sad because Italy is so far from achieving what we call multiculturalism and interculturalism. Happy because I know that it will take time but, in the end, Christians and Muslims, Italians and strangers could learn what coexistence really means.
Every night, the city centre pulses with bars open until 3.00 am where shisha and coffee are very popular and play an important social role, beating out the time of day.
If you wish to learn the art of patience, you might order a Turkish coffee and wait for the coffee powder to settle in the cup. The longer you wait, the more you will enjoy it. This coffee is on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. I completely agree. I never missed a eulogized Espresso while I was there.
In Sarajevo I found a very special tour guide, my “landlord”.
The person who hosted us in his apartment for 15 Euro per night offered us a coffee and interesting conversation. I could not help but be interested in the past of the country so I decided to come forward and ask.
Why does Bosnia not invest in bringing to light what happened during the conflict by conceiving a museum or by remembering and signposting the war zone? Why does no one want to talk about the conflict? It is as though it never happened.
The landlord, who is also an engineer and an investor and believes in his country and its potential, explained a concept which is generally shared by Bosnians.
“My generation lost our past. We won’t lose our future too. We lost family, friends, years of youth and now, we only want to remember those moments in the intimacy of our pain. Bosnia might be remembered for its landscape, for the waterfalls, its food and traditions and of course for the Sarajevo Film Festival and not only be linked to ethnic cleansing and victims,” he said.
How can we contradict him?
Before leaving the city, we walked through ancient streets alongside Gazi Husrev-beh Mosque, the Jewish Museum of Bosnia and the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral. We took a vintage tram which looks thirty or forty years old to get out of the city centre and got off in front of the Parliament elected by the Serb Republic and by the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina which is composed of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The picture of the building burning away is fortunately only a memory.
The tunnel of hope
Getting to the famous tunnel is another operation of titanic proportions. The tunnel, which used to be 800 metres long, is located close to the airport, but, as always the best way to reach a place is to ask someone.
And that is what we did. Some speak English, some speak Italian, others speak the commonly known language of signs.
At last, when we got there I met the receptionist in charge of receiving tourists.
He sells tickets, DVDs, souvenirs and he shares information and his personal history with whom wants to have more details about the tunnel. Apparently, he took part in its construction as he lived in the house situated above the tunnel, which was considered the hope of Sarajevo. In there, people, animals, arms, food and goods were passed during the 3 year-siege of the city. Without it, the city would not be connected to the United Nations free zone.
“The conflict has its roots in economic reasons and was not provoked because of religious diversity. This city has always been a cradle of cultures. Currently, Turkish, Catholics, Jews and Muslims are doing their best to accentuate their differences to preserve their identities damaged by the brutalities. I can say that coexistence is not a problem but intercultural exchanges and integration between them must be improved. Especially because tensions are very frequent because of the lack of jobs.
By the way, I hope that tourism and new income due to foreign investments will improve our lives,” he said.
It was time to go back even though I did not have enough time to get to Neum, the only coastal town in Bosnia! That would mean that I had to come back very soon.
Of course we could not find the way back. So we got lost again. Being misplaced in the centre of Bosnia was like feeling completely immersed in a timeless atmosphere, where everything seems pure and uncontaminated. During our disorganised tour we passed close to the Bosnian Pyramid of the Sun, which is believed to be the world’s largest and oldest. Even if experts remain dubious, the breath-taking landscape is worth a break and a picture.
I cannot believe I was going to leave this country without having admired an expanse of water, castles and hills lying alongside the B-roads like the one represented in the picture. As I could not find the name of this place, I renamed it “The Undescribeable”, therefore, only adventurous tourists devoid of a navigation device will find it.