Serbia: Keeping Warm with Rakia

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We were expecting it to be almost freezing when we arrived in Belgrade, Serbia, and while it wasn’t exactly warm we didn’t have to deal with snow and ice which is common at that time of year (mid December). We checked into Hedonist Hostel, a cosy hostel right in the centre of town with spacious dorms and great common areas including a neat little kitchen and a fantastic garden area which would be ideal during summer.

Belgrade has had a turbulent past and the city has been destroyed many times over the centuries. This means that much of the architecture is quite modern and the city lacks the old-world charm of many other European cities I’ve visited. I must admit that after visiting Croatia and Bosnia I had a pretty negative opinion of Serbs. The atrocities I had heard of in the previous countries had saddened me deeply and left a bitter feeling towards the former Yugoslavian state. However, after meeting some wonderful Serbian people and hearing more about the history I began to realise that there is no point in holding on to any bias, as most countries have had some involvement in horrific circumstances at some point in their past (think of the massacre of Aborigines in Australia) and deserve the opportunity to change and rebuild as a better nation. Of course this is much easier for me to say than it would be for a Bosnian muslim who’s family were executed during the Bosnian war, or for a Serb who saw the destruction of their city by NATO forces in 1999. Anyway, enough about  politics and more about what we got up to in Belgrade.

On our first day we joined a walking tour of the city which I’d highly recommend – the guide was fantastic! It started in Republic Square, next to the statue of  Prince Milailo III on his horse and across from the National Theatre. We were told that during the NATO bombings in 1999 The National Theatre opened its doors to the public and continued to put on operas, ballets and plays for the people for only 1 dinar – bringing some joy to the city during the 78-days of air raids.

Statue of  Prince Milailo III

National Theatre

Next we visited the bohemian quarter of Belgrade (or Skadarlija) which was once the home of poor artists, musicians and poets who would visit the kafanas (cafes) and inns to drink, discuss their works and listen to music. Today, the cafes still exist and you can eat and drink and be merry just as the gypsies once did.

Bohemian quarter (Skadarlija)

One of the kafanas in the bohemian quarter

Afterwards we made the ascent to Belgrade Fortress (0r Kalemegdan Park), the ancient citadel that sits atop the hill overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. It is said that the body of Attila the Hun is buried underneath the fortress. The citadel allows for great views around the city and the park is great for strolling around with many fountains, statues and old buildings to take in.

Monument to ‘The Victor’, the Protector of Belgrade

Ada/Sava Bridge

After the tour, a group of us decided to try out a local restaurant recommended to us by the tour guide. The food was incredible and we tried some of the local spirit, Rakia, in a number of different flavours. As it came in tiny little glasses we assumed that it was meant to be drunk all at once, it wasn’t until several later that we noticed someone else just sipping on it that we realised we’d been doing it all wrong, but by that stage we didn’t really care! After lunch we went back to the bohemian quarter to try some of the kafanas and more rakia and then ended up at a bar that served flavoured beer. A great way to finish off an excellent day in Belgrade.

Enjoying the local cuisine 

Rakia 

Flavoured beer

Interesting note:

During the 1990s Serbia suffered from one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in the world. The economy of the country was completely decimated and many people could not afford to buy food or turn on their heating. The government began to print more and more money which resulted in such a huge level of inflation that the price of products increased 5 quadrillion percent. In the end the government were printing money worth 500 billion dinars!

500 billion dinar note

I didn’t get much of a chance to sample the famous nightlife of Belgrade, although I did have a great night out at a packed salsa bar in the centre of town alongside some fellow travellers. Anyone else got any advice on the best clubs to go to?

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Bosnia: The Bold and The Balkans

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I had never even thought to go to Bosnia, in fact I didn’t know anything about the place apart from the fact it had been involved in a war sometime in the not too distant past. I have to thank Bec for suggesting that we go there because it was one of the most incredible places I have been – such an eye opener!

The first town we went to was Mostar, where we stayed at Hostel Nina. Nina’s mother (I’m sorry I’ve forgotten your name) picked us up from the bus station and drove us back to the hostel which was really lovely. Even during the drive back to the hostel I was absolutely gob-smacked, so many of the buildings were damaged beyond repair from the conflict in the 1990s and there were bullet holes everywhere. Nina’s mother would point to a mostly destroyed building and offhandedly say something like ‘that used to be a shopping centre’. At one point we were sitting at traffic lights when she told us the intersection was the frontline during the war. I just couldn’t believe how apparent the war still was and was saddened to think that the locals would have to walk past these reminders everyday.

One of the derelict buildings damaged during the war

Bulletholes cover the front of many of the buildings in the centre of town

This beautiful building was completely razed inside

To give you a bit of background, pretty much the whole town of Mostar was destroyed during the war in 1992-1995 after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence from Yugoslavia and was subjected to an 18 month siege. Many of the the towns ancient monuments were destroyed when the Yugoslav People’s Army bombed the area, and most devastatingly the symbol of the town, the Old Bridge, was demolished.

After checking in to the hostel we went out to explore the gorgeous town of Mostar, named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who in medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge). The Old Bridge, which was first built in the 16th century, is the most recognisable landmark in the town and much of the history of the area surrounds this amazing structure. You can tell why it is so important to the town because it is absolutely remarkable in it’s design and beauty. It is a perfect archway over the gorgeous Neretva river which runs through the town. Apparently it was commissioned to be built by a guy called Suleiman the Magnificent who was said to be pretty terrifying. When the scaffolding was ready to be taken away from bridge on completion many of the workers abandoned the town because they believed it would fall into the river and the architect also prepared himself for death. So when it didn’t fall down the remaining workers were so happy they dove off the bridge into the water 25 meters below. This is where the tradition of bridge diving started in Mostar and it is still a proud tradition today, with father’s passing the skill onto their sons throughout the generations.

Mostar

Stari Most (Old Bridge)

On the bridge

The view from the bridge

Our guide Zica used to be a bridge diver  and said that while there used to be a bridge diver in every family, now there are only 20-25 in the whole town and only five of them dare to dive head first off the bridge.  The divers have tattoos to show that they are one of those who are brave enough to take the plunge, but these days diving is more of a way to earn some cash from tourists than as a tradition. It is obvious from the way Zica talks about the bridge that it is a very important part of the towns history and culture. As I said, it was deliberately attacked during the war and was destroyed after 60 shells were fired at it. This must have been a huge blow to the people of Mostar and such a terrible shame as it was classified as one of the greatest architectural works of its time. After the war a reconstruction project commenced and the bridge was completed in 2004 and is now World Heritage Listed.

Several mosques also remain within the Old City which were built during the Ottoman reign and there are also some striking buildings from the Austro-Hungarian period. We visited the Karadoz-bey Mosque which is the most important monumental work of Islamic sacred architecture from the 16th century. We also wandered the cobbled street of the Old Town and browsed through the shops which had some stunning jewellery and textiles. Bec and I both bought some gorgeous earrings and pashminas which were ridiculously cheap. Zica told us that the economy in Mostar and Bosnia in general is really struggling with a huge percentage of people unemployed so tourism is really important for bringing money into the town (something I was only too happy to support!). I was particularly happy to spend my money on the delicious food that Bosnia has on offer. Almost all of their dishes are made with meat and are extremely hearty (and absolutely divine!) We tried dolma (stuffed grape leaves with rice), japrak (grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice), cevapi (Bosnian kebabs: small grilled meat sausages made of lamb and beef mix; served with onions, sour cream, ajvar and Bosnian pita bread) and many other exquisite morsels. Oh, and of course baklava! Oh my god, it was to die for! Baklava and a rakija (Balkan liqueur) was a daily neccessity.

Karadoz-bey Mosque

A mix of Bosnian delicacies

Baklava!

I always recommend Mostar to everyone because it is such a beautiful town with such an amazing history. I also recommend Hostel Nina. Nina and her mother were so friendly and kind. They also organised a tour of the surrounding area for us with Nina’s husband Zica who was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, his stories were just incredible. Zica was injured two times during the war. The first time he was hit by grenade shrapnel and spent a month in a temporary hospital and the second time he was shot by a sniper. During the siege Zica hid in his parents basement and during the night he would go out to find food and drinkable water.

Zica also took us on a tour of the surrounding area. We first stopped at a traditional burek restaurant where they make the delicious Bosnian pastry. It can be made with cheese and spinach but the one we had was lamb. It was a bit heavy for breakfast, but extremely scrumptious!

Lamb burek

The tour went to some of the areas nearby Mostar and was extremely interesting. Zica tells some amazing stories about the different places you visit and the countryside is very beautiful. First we stopped at the town of Blagaj where the Blagaj Tekke, a spectacular Ottoman guesthouse, has been built against a cliff from which the source of the Buna river flows, apparently it is the finest example of an underground karst river. The water from the river at this spot was said to have magical properties, so of course Bec and I took a sip.

Blagaj Tekke

We then travelled to Pocitelj, a unique UNESCO heritage site on the bank of the Neretva which was once an important administrative centre during the Middle Ages. The fortified town is one of the best preserved settlements from ancient times (1400s) and features an incredibly well maintained clock-tower, mosque, and citadel. Despite the town being severely damaged during the Bosnian war, some inhabitants remain within the town, living in the gorgeous stone houses that exist inside the fortified walls.

Overlooking Pocitelj

The view from the citadel

Looking out from the citadel

The Pocitelj mosque

Next up was a visit to Kravice waterfalls which had a beautiful swimming hole – would have been brilliant during summer.

Bec and I at Kravice waterfalls. If only it was 20 degrees warmer!

And lastly we stopped at Medjugorje, what was once a small village that has now become a site visited by millions of faithful Catholics from all over the world thanks to a group of teenagers who claim  the Virgin Mary appeared before them in the hills near the town in 1981. They’ve had to build rows upon row of seats and confessionals outside the church to host the huge crowds that descend on the town and you can pick up tacky religious souvenirs in the multitude of shops that now exist on the main street. Not my favourite place in the world to say the least.

Confessional after confessional. Confess your sins in any language.

 The seats outside the church where massive masses can be held.

Sarajevo

To me, Sarajevo appeared to be a pretty cold, harsh city. After learning more about the history of the city and the horrors that the residents faced during the 1990s conflict I came to understand why. What I wasn’t expecting was the warmth of the people who live there now and their generosity towards strangers.

Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina and has been struggling to rebuild its economy since the 1990s. Despite my first impression of the city I soon realised that there was some spectacular architecture, both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, that gives the city an ageless beauty. Unfortunately you can still see the scars left behind by the war; buildings pockmarked by bulletholes, piles of rubble and holes in the footpath. These holes are often painted red and are called ‘Sarajevo Roses’, signifying where somebody was shot down during the conflict, usually by a Serbian sniper from the surrounding hills.

A ‘Sarajevo Rose’. One of the places someone was killed during the 1990s conflict.

Bec and I did a walking tour which I highly recommend. The guide was extremely informative and took us to some of the more important places that had special significance during the war and also showed us the historical buildings within the city. Another interesting place we visited was the place where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, triggering the start of World War 1.

Roman Catholic Cathedral of Jesus’ Heart

Mosque near the Old Town

The Latin Bridge. The corner where Frans Ferdinand was assassinated. 

The Old Town is like a huge bizarre with selllers bargaining with tourists for jewellery, clothes and copper products and I found it was possible to wander the cobbelestoned streets for hours.

Street in the Old Town

As I said, the locals were some of the warmest people I’ve come across. At one point, Bec and I were at a cute little restaurant for dinner (as usual the food was amazing) and after finishing our meals a bottle of wine and two desserts arrived without us ordering them. We were told that a group of older people sitting at the back of the restaurant had sent them to us as a kind of welcome and thank you for coming, I was shocked by the generosity, but as I said previously, Bosnians are extremely thankful to tourists because their economy relies heavily upon us. Just in case you were wondering, the dessert was amazing! Of course!

I’d love to hear if anyone else out there had never considered Bosnia as a place to visit. I hope I’ve changed your mind 🙂

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