Making tracks in Bosnia: Banja Luka – Sarajevo – MostarSeptember 19th, 2011
“It’s a bit warm in here isn’t it?” the girl next to me uttered as we leaned out of the window of our Bosnian train, in an attempt to steal some much-needed ventilation. As the 1960s relic moved slowly through the countryside of northern Bosnia, we started chatting about her life and inevitably moved onto the subject of the early 1990s in these parts. She was one of the many who fled at the outset of war, moving to Sweden – one of the few countries who welcomed Bosnian refugees without too many problems.
Aida was a Bosniak, that is to say, a Bosnian Muslim. She had a sensible approach to life and a positive standpoint on Bosnia’s future. Following the Dayton Accord of 1995, which ended the conflict in these parts, Bosnia is now divided politically into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Repulika Srpska, the latter taking up much of the traditional Serb heartland of the north and east of the country. Aida’s family, who she was visiting, are based in the northern town of Bosanski Novi, close to the Croatian border: a Bosniak living amongst Serbs. “It’s all a bit silly really”, she concluded. “I’m sure we can all just coexist together”. This utopian slant is perhaps indicative of fifteen years away in Sweden, away from the realities of day-to-day life in this fascinating but complex country, although a quasi-objective standpoint is often more balanced.
The political divisions of Bosnia are not all that apparent to outsiders. Driving between the two entities, a simple sign saying “Federacija Bosna i Hercegovina – Dobrodošli” [welcome] is the only giveaway. When travelling by train, the border is more pronounced, as the engine of Republika Srpska railways is replaced with that of the Federation of B&H at the “border town” of Doboj, a process of around 20 minutes. “This is Bosnia, it’s a little bit crazy”, Aida shrugged in response.
I started my journey in the north-western town of Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska. It is a fascinating town with, as is all too common in Bosnia, plenty of war scars that still linger. However, there is plenty of construction work and infrastructure work taking place, which will hopefully lead to a brighter future for the largely Bosnian Serb population. There are a couple of decent hotels, a castle, a beautiful river and excellent restaurants…not to mention the parliament and high court of Republika Srpska, possibly Europe’s least known “capital”. It is an ideal stopover to break the long journey from Zagreb to Sarajevo, serving as a tantalising introduction to this progressive country.
The train itself was an InterCity service from Zagreb to Ploče, a small port on the Croatian coast, halfway between Split and Dubrovnik. When it rolled into the somewhat dated, Tito-era station at Banja Luka, the train consisted of two coaches from Republika Srpska railways and one from Croatian Railways. Having noticed that the “No Smoking” signs were being largely ignored in the Bosnian carriages, I made my way into the Croatian carriage, where I found a seat in the ubiquitous 6-seat compartment. The aging locomotive made heavy work of the 70-mile journey from Banja Luka across to Doboj, covering the ground in little under 2½ hours, complete with the usual unscheduled stops to allow trains in the opposite direction to pass, given that most of the line is only single-track. Once we reached Doboj, the locomotive changed and the journey became faster (well it’s all relative – we perhaps reached a top speed of 50mph!) and a steward plied up and down the carriages with a shopping trolley containing a range of soft drinks and some moderately chilled Sarajevsko Pivo, the top-selling beer in these parts. Given that it was after 6pm and I had been a good boy, I treated myself to a Sarajevsko for around 80 pence, then leant almost rebelliously out of the window and enjoyed the views as the scenery became more mountainous. The light of the evening sun played stunningly on the mountain villages, which are all focused on the minaret of the village mosque. We twisted and turned in time with the Bosna river, as does the main road and the new motorway running north out of the capital. Eventually we swept round to the left, bringing into focus the bullet hole-ridden tower blocks of western Sarajevo.
Bidding Aida a fond farewell, I took a taxi to the Ada Hotel, on the fringes of Baščaršija (pronounced “Bash-char-sheeya”), the Ottoman old town area. The welcome was unlike any other I had received – Aldina, the charming young receptionist, had prepared not only a welcome drink (my second Sarajevsko of the evening!), but some watermelon, baklava and fresh orange juice. I was shown to my room on the second floor, which was complete with much-needed air-conditioning and was spotless and comfortable. Being a 3-star family run hotel, the emphasis is much more on the service than room facilities: there is no minibar, but there is Aldina, who was more than happy to provide drinks and she is a much better tourist information service than a small refrigerator will ever be!
Modern Sarajevo is a wondrous melange of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, of Christian and Muslim, of nostalgia and aspiration. Hosts of the “Torvill and Dean” Winter Olympics in 1984, the city was famously torn apart by conflict during the siege of 1992 to 1995. Every Sarajevan over the age of 20 has a story to tell, a memory of dodging the Serb snipers on “Sniper Alley” and chopping down trees for fuel. Buildings were heavily damaged and thousands of lives were lost. The scars of war are all too apparent in the non-renovated buildings of the residential suburbs. Some new hotels have sprung up on the old Sniper Alley: most impressively, the Hotel Bristol, a Sarajevo landmark during the Yugoslav years, which found itself right on the frontline and was swiftly destroyed in 1992. The new gleaming structure is a symbol of new foreign investment in Bosnia, and its beautifully-appointed rooms are testament to the fact that Sarajevo is emerging on the world stage as a tourist and business destination. Back in the heart of the old town, the aptly-named Hotel Central is the best example of the new trendy design hotel, combining comfort with an affordable price. The leisure facilities are immense, with the hotel also housing the city’s leading health and fitness centre popular with locals and hotel guests alike.
After 2 days of breathing in this most refreshingly diverse of European Capitals, I left on an early morning train to Mostar. The train had come overnight from Zagreb, and consisted of three coaches. Although there was a mixture between open coaches and compartments, all of which are designated as Standard Class non-smoking, I found myself in a “First Class” compartment. Alongside me on one side there were two symbols – one of which was “No Smoking” and the other was “No Dogs”. To my great amusement, across the aisle, an elderly Bosnian man sparked up a Camel Light and had a large Golden Labrador taking up all the aisle space! She turned out to be as daft as a brush, and was fun to have around during the journey, receiving doting pats and strokes from fellow passengers as they passed. The train itself was a relic of 1950s Sweden. Signs in Swedish were still prominently displayed, much to the delight of a Swedish couple a few rows away! Although decrepit, the seats were comfortable and extremely spacious – I could just about touch the seat in front with my outstretched foot. As we settled in, a lady from the buffet car made her way through the carriage offering a dose of typically strong Bosnian coffee, the sort that makes sleep a challenge for the next two days, for a reasonable 1 KM (about 45p). The train quickly climbs through the mountainous hills once occupied by Bosnian Serb aggressors – that hostility is barely conceivable now, as the line cuts through valleys, alongside rivers and through long tunnels. Approaching the small town of Konjic, the scenery is so spectacular that even the locals are glued to the window admiring the beauty. Nobody worries that the train is going so slowly – this is one of the most scenic and memorable journeys I have made anywhere in the world, right up there alongside the train to Macchu Pichu in Peru, the Rhine Valley in Germany or any of the scenic trains in Switzerland. Just when you think you’ve been through the best of it once you pass the town of Jablanica, the train snakes along the upper valley of the Neretva River, which is the same watercourse that is bridged so famously at Mostar. Myself and my fellow passengers ran out of superlatives to describe the natural dramatics that were unfolding through of the nicotine-stained windows of this antique rattler – and to think that in a few years’ time, this region and indeed this country is bound to be discovered by mainstream tourism.
One area that has long-since been on the tourist radar is the delightful town of Mostar, into which the train trundled about an hour late. Wandering around the old town of the city, which was famously bombarded during the 1990s conflict, was a fantastic experience. My guide was excellent, a local who fled to Norway during the war but has returned and now delivers a fascinating insight into the make-up of the city, its history and the celebrated bridge across the Neretva, which has been lovingly rebuilt following the original bridge’s thoughtless destruction in 1993. Large parts of the city were demolished, leaving it in a state akin to that of Dresden in 1945. Rebuilding has barely ceased since the guns fell silent, resulting in an old town replica that effuses the same charm and history that befits the tradition of this jewel of the Herzegovina region of the country. Mostar’s proximity to the touristy Croatian coastline makes it a day-trip favourite, so I particularly enjoyed strolling the city in the evening, when the hordes depart and the bridge is enchantingly lit up.
“Mr Simon, your transfer is here!” After a very comfortable night in the family-run Villa Fortuna, it was time for me to say goodbye to this beautiful town and unforgettable country. My driver pointed his smart Mercedes A-class south on the main road emblazoned “DUBROVNIK; SPLIT”. As we reached the Croatian border, another simple sign said “Federacija Bosna i Hercegovina – Hvala i Do Viđenja” [thank you and goodbye]. The queue of cars waiting to leave Bosnia was not nearly as long as the queue to enter it…an apt reflection, I thought to myself, of the charms that lie within the borders of the “heart-shaped country”.