Travelling in the bus from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina is interesting experience. Dubrovnik is a small landlocked isthmus and is connected with the rest of the country through the Neum corridor. So there are multiple immigration checks en route. The border control personnel get into the bus and stamp the passport. By the time you have crossed all the border posts, you’ve have acquired at least half a dozen stamps on your travel documents and it appears that you’re extremely well-travelled.
Entering into Bosnia you witness a number of mosques and churches and Christian and Muslim cemeteries along the roadside and you can almost get the sense that one side of the road is inhabited by Muslims and the other by Christians. As we got off the main bus stop at Mostar, our host Senel was at hand to receive us with his car. His establishment in the heart of the old city has a 9 rating from Airbnb. Senel had fled to Germany during the war and returned because he says he loves his city, where he knows almost everyone. This was not the sentiment of another Bosnian I met. Arman, a cousin of Senal, whose taxi we hired for a day trip around Mostar, spoke of German officials threatening forced eviction if they and other Bosnian refugees did not leave after the end of war. Both Senel and Arman spoke good German from their times as refugees and I could make good conversation with them. One thing that came out was that they don’t wear their religion on their sleeves. Despite the ravages of the war and the genocide, they want to live in peace and bear no grudges for the past. Despite stark reminders of the war like the pock marked walls and reminders of NEVER FORGET, the city has healed fast and is on the road to recovery. Bosnia is not part of the EU but the prices of foodstuff and rents are lower than neighbouring Croatia. It’s now thronged by tourists. Incidentally Pakistani peacekeepers played a prominent role in restoring peace in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Mostar has an old war charm about it and has a distinct Ottoman heritage. It is also known as the place where east meets west. Its most famous landmark is Stari Most, literally the Old Bridge, over the River Neverita. It connects the two parts of the city. Constructed on the orders of Sulaiman the Magnificent in 1566, the bridge was designed by Mimar (Engineer) Hayruddin, a student and apprentice of the famous architect Mimar (Engineer) Sinan. An exemplary piece of Islamic architecture in the Balkans, the Old Bridge was destroyed on 9 November 1993 by Croat forces during the Croat–Bosniak War. After the war it was rebuilt with the help of the UNICEF and was reopened on 23 July 2004 in all its old splendour.
The old bazar cobblestoned and lined by stores selling trinkets and souvenirs is magical place. A singing minstrel in old ottoman dress complete with a red fez cap and baggy trousers strums his stringed musical instrument and would be happy if you throw a few coins for his labours. The city’s unique appeal is the quaint restaurants, some of them located just next to the ancient river with its clear waters. A meal in these cafes is a memorable affair. The lavender scent wafting by is mesmerising and large portions of trout or kebabs with freshly baked bread are mouth-watering. The old bridge is naturally the most frequented place in the city. Located just next to the bridge is a divers’ club, where daredevils change before jumping off the bridge in the cold waters of the river below to let the passer-by that they know no fear. A short walk away from the old bridge is another famous bridge known as the crooked bridge. The area around it is overflowing with flowers. A number of mosques in the old city resound to the call of the azan but the attendance is thin. The maghrib prayer of the mosque, where I prayed was led by a very young man without a beard. Many of the minarets bear green flags with Islamic symbol of a half moon and a star. Looked like the flag of Pakistan minus the white patch. This is, is however, not the official coat of arms of the Republic of Bosnia Herzegovina. I saw similar fags in other places with Muslim majority.
The charm of the old city is many splendored but you can venture out and see more sights in the surrounding area. We hired a taxi and visited Tekia of the Dervish in Blagaj, the old fort in Paticelj and the amazing waterfalls in Kravica. The Tekia is an amazing place. Nestled in the foothills of the mountains, it was a place where the sufi saints of different tarikas would pray and conduct dhikr – the practice of systematically reciting Allah ho. The symbol ‘ho’ in Arabic is written at various places in the Tekia. The prayer place and niche are ideal for meditation. Even today, a prayer call is alluring and mellifluous and is impossible to ignore.
The settlement at Pocitelj has a Muslim fort and a mosque. The business is slow here as salesmen and women sit outside on an exceeding hot day to sell their ware. I climbed up the tower of the old fort that is in need of urgent restoration but provides a good bird’s eye view all around. As I wondered around and entered the mosque to offer prayers, my wife in her own exploration met the Imam’s wife, who took her to her home for a a very welcome glass of sherbet and a cup of Turkish coffee. As I came out of the mosque, she told me that the Khanum has gone below. I don’t know how they conversed with each other because ‘zaban-i-yaar-i-man Turki o’ Turki name danam.’ Roughly translated it means: The language of my beloved is Turkish but alas I don’t know Turkish.
A visit to the magnificent waterfalls at Kravica neatly rounded off our day trip. There are about a dozen cataracts that are falling down a steep precipice, not quite as high as the Niagara falls but easily accessible for all those who wanted to beat the heat. Lots of people were taking a dip in the extremely cold waters in skimpy swim suits, others were sunbathing and tanning their European bodies and enjoying their beer in the shade. Despite all the rush, the waters were not muddied and there was no litter around the place.
Mostar underwent a long siege and suffered the worst that human beings can do to each other. Twenty years from the genocide, they seem to have recovered from their trauma and fast returning to normality.
After the civil war of the 1990s, tourism has become a major industry in Croatia and Bosnia. An estimated 12 million people annually visit Croatia alone. Croatia and Bosnia are off the beaten track from where we live. It is not really the most favored touristic destination for South Asians. There can be many reasons for it. For an average Pakistan, the most popular and perhaps the most worthwhile foreign holiday is performing Umra. It costs less than the Haj and it is the kind of religious tourism that doesn’t give the pilgrims pangs of guilty conscience. Costs incurred are for good purpose because it combines business with pleasure. It serves the person’s spiritual needs and brings him or her closer to the Creator. Those, who permit themselves the luxury of splurging on holidays, are more likely to visit Dubai, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. These places are nearer home, airline connections are well known, the prices are perhaps more affordable and there is touristic history that can be obtained from previous visitors.
I had a chance to visit Croatia and Bosnia this summer and I can tell you it was money well spent. I must confess this was not my first choice but that of our daughter, whom we were visiting in Germany. She made the travel arrangements on Easy Jet, a budget airlines from Schönefeld airport in Berlin to Dubrovnik in Croatia. Flying time was approximately one hour and forty five minutes. So an aerial distance of roughly equivalent to that of Islamabad to Karachi. The small aircraft was packed to capacity and as we started to make a descent the azure blue waters of the Adriatic Sea and the red stucco tiled roofs of houses came into view. As we landed we could feel that we were in warmer climes as compared to the cool weather of Berlin. It was July the 7th and it was beginning to feel like back home. The tourist brochure boasts of 250 days of sunshine and the clothes that the tourists were wearing had become shorter and scarcer in anticipation of a nice tan. The only cover they had against the very hot sun were hats and sun glasses. Among those disembarking were a number of young backpackers on a shoe string budget. Reminded me of my first travels in Europe in the summer of 1981, when I saw all the places that I had ever read about and lived miraculously on less than a dollar a day. I had stowed in my backpack a thick travel book that helped me find cheap places to eat and sleep. Now this can be done through apps available on the smartphone.
The local airport is located about 20 kilometers away. A transfer bus brought us to the center of the city in about 20 minutes time. From here we caught Bus number 8 to Nuncijata up the hill. We had been booked in ABBA Apartments through AirBNB, which provides local hosts in more than 191 countries. Booking can be done hassle free through a technology app that puts you into contact with private people offering their houses or apartments for short term stays. It is amazing the kind of deals that you can get here. So any way, here we were on a rather warm and sunny day on a hill overlooking the Adriatic and the GPS telling us we had literally a few steps to go down the stone stairway to our place of residence but we weren’t really sure to accept the digital advice. So our daughter called our hosts in Dubrovnik and sought advice. To her pleasant surprise her telephone plan covered Croatia since its inclusion in EU in 2015. We again wondered what prompted the Brits to leave the comfort of the EU. A few minutes later Ivo Kostro, a tall smiling man in his thirties appeared on his scooter to help guide us. Apparently the GPS wasn’t far wrong. We were a only a few minutes and a few steps away from ABBA apartments. It appeared that everyone owns a scooter here. It makes mobility easier on narrow winding roads. So as Ivo carried some of our bags on his scooter, we just walked down to our abode for the next few days. ABBA reminded us of the Swedish band of the same name that was so popular our youth. It was small but neat and well contained. There were two bedrooms – one with a double bed and the other with a single bed. A small living room with a flat screen TV opened into a small kitchenette and beyond into a bathroom through an open space covered from all sides and with light entering from the sun roof above. The bathroom had among other amenities a washing machine. Our daughter thought it was ancient and could be a relic of the communist area. Her hunch was right because when she operated it a day later it broke down and the owners had a hard time explaining that it was from the time of former Yugoslavia and needed to be changed.
Ivo’s wife Ljiljana joined us as moved in. She was shorter and could speak a smattering of German. She gave us a short tour of the apartment and Ivo showed the small terraced lawn upstairs. It gave an excellent view of the coastline and a barbecue stand. This apartment like the others that we would hire in our travels had free wifi. After setting us down our hosts pored over a local tourist map and pointed out the places we could visit over a cup of complementary. In the evening we took the steps further down to the harbour. It was a pretty walk through lined quaint apartments open for tourists. There were lots of flowers hanging from the pots in the walls and pretty little lawns in the small courtyards that were visible from the grilled entrances. We had our dinner in a nice restaurant next to the harbour and then we walked down towards the old town or Grad. The claim to fame of the old city of Dubrovnik is that a season of the Game of Thrones has been shot here. One reason I suspect, why Amna our daughter wanted to visit this place. For my wife it was a place, of the famous scene in the movie Fan, where Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan is chased on top of the battlements of the ancient fort. There is a picture cut out of the King Khan in the pantheon reserved for famous stars, who had been filmed in the old. I very gallantly asked my wife to pose with the SRK cut out.
Dubrovnik is positioned at the terminal end of the Isthmus of Dubrovnik. It was founded 1300 years ago by refugees from Epidaurus in Greece. It was part of the Venetian empire until it became an independent republic in in the 15th century. It was a major port that traded with Egypt, Syria, Sicily, Spain, France and Turkey. Isolated palm trees, among a profusion of European fauna, reminds one of its Mediterranean roots. In 1979, the city of Dubrovnik joined the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Although it is still being discovered by tourists and movie makers, the beginning of tourism in Dubrovnik is associated with the construction of the Hotel Imperial in 1897. Lord Byron had declared it, the pearl of the Adriatic and George Bernard Shaw said, “Those that seek paradise on earth should seek it in Dubrovnik.” Today it is considered among the 10 best medieval walled cities in the world and among the 10 best places in the world for a fairy tale proposal of the Valentine’s Day. Although Dubrovnik was demilitarized in the 1970s to protect it from war, in 1991, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, it was besieged by Serb-Montenegrin forces for 7 months and received significant shelling damage. A small museum inside the walled city is dedicated to the memory of the defenders of the city. Another interesting place to visit inside the old city is a mesjid, where prayer services are still held.
As we walked around the old city at night it was brilliantly lit and people were enjoying themselves in the restaurants typical Mediterranean fare. Large TV screens had football enthusiasts gathered all around watching the semi-finals between Germany and France. Amna was rooting for Germany, her adopted country but unfortunately the Germans lost 2-0.
Some memorable snapshots forever etched in my mind’s eye are: A swim in the sun drenched Rivera, a walk around the harbour at sunset and large cruisers brilliantly lit up and a brilliant view from the attic top living room of Kostornos, of a luxury liner leaving the port for some exotic destination.
The next day we left for Mostar in Bosnia by bus.