Sunday, 9 August 2015

Bosnia and Hercegovina – Wild waterfalls and wilder men falling in water

August 7-8

Hello everyone!

My time on the coast has ended for this particular trip. No more concrete beaches and monstrous cruise liners obscuring fine views. For the rest of my journey up to Prague I’ll be inland. That’s not to say that I’ll be away from water, however. Indeed, my first stop since the sea of Slano and Dubrovnik has been epitomised by the aqua blue.

Being honest, here in Bosnia and Hercegovina the colour of the rivers and lakes is more reminiscent of turquoise or pale emerald than of our stereotypical colour for the sea. The river I’m talking about bisects a town called Mostar, which is the largest settlement in the Hercegovina region.

The Neretva River in Mostar

The name of the country is Bosnia and Hercegovina. Often we shorten it to ‘Bosnia’ but this only represents the northern terrain of the country. The southern area is, and has for centuries been, Hercegovina. They were united as one country by that traditional medieval method…of marriage. We were told about this on a tour of the region in the lovely village of Blagaj, where an old monastery creeps over the smaller cliff with a cool, flowing spring below.

The spring at Blagaj

The monastery was built in the 16th Century at the request of an Ottoman sultan

From here we briefly visited one of the Catholic Church’s more intriguing pilgrimage sites: Medjugorje. In 1981 six teenagers, on a long hike from the village, claimed to have seen an apparition from the Virgin Mary. They have since stated that they are now regularly visited by her. As a result, scores of Catholics visit Medjugorje in the hope of being visited themselves. This is in spite of the fact that the Vatican doesn’t recognise this as a pilgrimage site and has grave doubts about its authenticity.

Over 15 million people have visited the village since 1981

Many pilgrims are from Catholic-dominated countries such as Italy and Ireland

We spent most of our time during the day tour of Hercegovina at the Kravica waterfalls: a stunning set of gushing water chutes. From up high it actually reminded me of a theme park, minus the slides and screaming children of course. The land curves around, creating a cove at the bottom to swim in. Cold would be an apt description of the water.

The highest waterfall is 25m

Clambering over the rocks and dipping heads under the torrent of water crashing down was a tremendous experience. It also helped us cool off as this region gets rather warm; we were told that Mostar was the hottest city in Europe on average through July, with temperatures regularly rocketing over 40’C.

The waterfalls at Kravica

After a few hours frolicking in the falls, our final stop was the village of Pocitelj. Ominous thunderclouds were beginning to form over the surrounding hills as we arrived, which added to the sombre atmosphere of the place. This, along with many sites in Hercegovina, was one of the large battlegrounds during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Muslims were being bombarded from Serbs on one side and Croats on the other. Most people have left the old stone village, which was severely damaged.

The end of the fortress at Pocitelj

The architecture is in the Ottoman style, reflecting the time of its development

Going on a tour such as this introduces you to some of the more local aspects of life which may be neglected in larger cities. Though all of the places we visited cater to tourists, there still seems to be a more sedate pace and value of heritage. This extends in particular to food and drink. In Blagaj we were treated to enormous breakfast bureks along with traditional Bosnian coffee (same as Turkish coffee with that weird residue left at the end of your cup), whilst in Kravica we got to sample some local rakija, which is the spirit de jour of the Balkans. Lots of rakija, in fact.

The old-fashioned way of cooking a burek pie

Rakija comes in a variety of different flavours, walnut undoubtedly being the worst!

A sensible person would need a lot of rakija in order to experience the main event in Mostar. In many Slavic languages, ‘most’ means bridge. Mostar is thus named after its beautiful old bridge…which people naturally jump off into the aforementioned greenish river below.

The old bridge by night

Crowds gather on and below the bridge to watch the divers

Not just a little below. 24 metres below. Members of the local diving club are the ones who rise (and fall) to the challenge of landing in the river without shattering every bone in their body. Tourists are allowed to have a go if they prove themselves during a training course. A month ago someone who was staying in my hostel had a go, landed almost perfectly…and broke two vertebrae. It is not for the faint-hearted. Or any normal person.

The view the diver will have of his landing zone

The divers spend time collecting money for their bravery

But what fun to watch! The divers clearly know this as well and make a great spectacle of it, walking precariously along the edge of the bridge collecting money, swooping arms up and down like a billowing swan before taking a deep breath and launching themselves to the depths below.

Mostar itself is a nice place, though scars of the war are clearly still visible. The bridge itself was destroyed in 1993 and only reopened 11 years later. You can walk on the front line, which is a road one block west of the river, and see the battered buildings. Graves take up any available green space. Seeing the age of many of the buried makes one’s heart sink.

An abandoned building on the Boulevard road in Mostar

The marks in the wall of this house are bullet holes

Graves were created on any available space in Mostar

Whilst remembering and acknowledging the past, Mostar would seem to have a bright future. The tiny old town, all centred around the bridge, is throbbing with people. It is the main town of a delightful and, to me, surprisingly beautiful part of the Balkans. Hot, hot Hercegovina has been a pleasure to travel through.

Love you all


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