Bosnia: July 2017

Warning: Graphic content in this post. Bosnia is a complicated historical situation and this post is my own understanding of it, based on the people we met this week.

After spending a week in Bosnia, it’s hard to know how to describe it. The  scenery is gorgeous. The people are friendly and the food is delicious. The reminders from the war are everywhere.
From Dubrovnik we followed the coast to Neum, one of the few Bosnian towns along the coast. Bosnia has only 22 km of coastline, given to the Ottomans by Dubrovnik as a protective buffer against Italian Venice. If Venice were to attack Dubrovnik, the Ottomans would be obliged to defend the city.

We stayed three nights in Mostar, a city that is a perfect blend of Ottoman structures (mostly wooden), Austro-Hungarian buildings (very ornate), and communist hotels (utilitarian). Mostar’s most striking feature is the Old Bridge (“Stari Most”) built in 1566, at that time the longest bridge span in the world (30 meters). It survived up until 1994, when shelling during the war caused its collapse. Ten years later, with help from the international community, the bridge was restored with original pieces from the river Neretva, and once again connects the Muslim and Catholic districts of the town.

Mostar Bridge
A typical communist-style building (used by snipers during the war)
A typical wooden Ottoman house
People in Mostar have not forgotten the war in Bosnia 
Delicious Bosnian coffee and dessert 

From Mostar we took a day trip to Blagaj, a tiny town that sits just at the source of the river Buna. The source of the water is somewhere deep in a mountain, so the water is clean and so cold. We had fresh trout for lunch and looked up at the ruins of a 2nd century Roman fortress up on the hill.

Roman Fortress on the Hill 
Once a flour mill at the source of the river 
Clean, cold river straight from the mountain 

Leaving the southern  (Herzegovina) area, we headed to the north (Bosnia). Sarajevo was named after the Turkish word for palace, “Sarai”. Under the Ottomans, a cultural and religious diversity flourished. They accepted Jews when they were expelled from Spain, as they were educated and wealthy and could pay high taxes. Christian Catholics and Byzantine Orthodox were allowed to keep their religions, but had to pay higher taxes and could not get a government job. In this “Jerusalem of the west”, the religious and ethnic groups got along.

15th c road to Turkey 
15th C graves of Turkish merchants 

In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire gave way to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and modernization happened quickly. One of the first electric trams was tested in Sarajevo, then installed in Vienna, electricity came to the city, and the switch to the Roman alphabet made education more readily available. By 1914, some elements of the population wanted to be free of the Austro-Hungarians, and in 1914 a six man assassination team was sent to Sarajevo to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Amazingly, the first threw a bomb, which did not injure the Archduke, and they drove right past the other five assassins. Later in the day,  Ferdinand requested to go see the injured in the hospital, and that’s when Gavril Princep got him. The dominoes fell, and World War One began. Ironically, four of the assassins received death sentences, but both the bomber and the shooter were still minors, and were released after 20 years.

Once a monument to “freedom fighters” who liberated Yugoslavia from the Austro-Hungarians, but later removed as the “freedom fighters” were relabelled “terrorists” who began the World War
The site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand 

In 1918, six Balkan nations together formed Yugoslavia under first a monarchy, then after World War II  under Josip Broz, who fought under the nom de guerre Tito. Dubbed the “charming dictator”, Tito held the nations together under a socialistic regime, abolishing religions. When he died in 1980, the six nations formed a “collective presidency” but ethnic and religious differences arose. Nationalism won, and by 1991 Yugoslavia began breaking up, with each nation declaring independence and then the others declaring war on them. In 1992 Bosnia declared independence, and the war began here. From 1992-1995, Bosnian Serbs backed by the Serbian government laid siege to Sarajevo- the longest siege in modern history- 44 months. One of their first acts was to burn the national library, destroying over 2 million volumes of cultural history.

The library after the fire 
Millions of books lost to the fire 
The City Hall, rebuilt, but no longer a library 

Our tour guide Merima was in first grade when the siege began. Teachers came to teach classes when they could in the basement of her family’s apartment building. Snipers on the hillsides shot any one visible in the streets, and an average of 300 mortar shells fell daily. The 1984 Olympic stadium, near downtown, had to be used as a cemetery. In July 1993, 3300 shells fell in one single day. Food was provided by the UN, who held the airport for food, aid, and journalists to cover the war, so the city did not starve. The city’s drinking water was largely provided by underground streams over which a brewery had been built in the 1860s, although to reach the brewery a runner had to cross one of six uncovered bridges under sniper fire.  Merima remembers eating bread with dead worms in it, expired canned meat jello, and rice with bugs in it. It is safe to say that life was not comfortable during those years. In the siege, 11,500 Sarajevans died, and 1600 of them were children. Reading first person accounts written later by the snipers is just harrowing, as they thought about who to shoot first: a mother or a child, trying to cross a street.  None of the snipers have ever been brought to trial, and many still live in the hills sourrounding the city. Sarajevans have a dark sense of humor, and one of their favorite jokes is “Everyone in Sarajevo is missed by someone- a sniper”.  Also: “Sarajevo roulette: more complicated than Russian”.

Children’s Monument 
The brewery, since 1860s

In July 1995, 8000 Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) ranging from infants to old age were exterminated in Srebrenica, a picturesque alpine town that had been under the protection of a Dutch UN battalion. At last this act prompted the world to send in more than just “peacekeepers”, and the UN gave way to more robust NATO air strikes, the presidents of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia were brought to Dayton Ohio for peace accords. The governing agreement they signed is very strange (3 presidents and 2 prime ministers must agree in order to pass a law- which only happened twice last year),  but Bosnians are trying to make peace last. However, before the war, approximately 40% of people had mixed marriages, while now it is closer to 15%. Clearly the groups are trying to get along, but intermingling is rare.

The first funeral of identified remains (600 caskets)
The city of Srebrenica

Currently, Bosnia feels hopeful, with universal health care and free education (University is 50 euro per year). But unemployment is at 45%, and many people long for the days when Yugoslavia imported little and produced most of its own goods, and unemployment was 3%. Tourism is a main industry here, and they capitalize on the “east meets west” aspect as well as the war itself and their swift recovery. While you can still see hundreds of bullet holes, mortar impacts, and bombed out buildings, you also see a large percentage of completely renovated and new buildings. There are approximately 50 mosques in Sarajevo, with another 150 in the surrounding hills, about 35 Catholic Churches, and 20 Orthodox Churches. There is one synagogue, with a rabbi flying in once a year from Israel.

‘Sarajevo Rose’: impact from a mortar shell that killed at least 3 people. There used to be dozens in the city; now all but about 50 have been filled in. The rest stay as a reminder.

I’m very glad we went to Bosnia. Seeing the people in the cities, interacting with tourists and going about the process of rebuilding their cities, is a wonderful thing. However, something in me still thinks that the peace accord signed there is not necessarily fair to everyone, and has not provided justice or closure to a good number of people. I hope that the younger generation of Bosnians can overcome the obstacles that stand in their path of being a unified, healthy nation.

The abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Winter Olympics
Sunset over Sarajevo 
Sarajevo’s indomitable spirit 

*All historical information in this post is gathered from my tour guides in Mostar and Sarajevo, two museums, a taxi driver originally from Belgrade, and our landlady, who worked at the Diplomatic Mission during the war. I also listened to “The Cellist of Sarajevo” by Stephen Galloway (based on a real incident), and watched Bill Carter’s documentary “Miss Sarajevo”.

Slovenia and Croatia: July 2017

From Trieste it was only a 2 hour bus ride through Karst province (the only Slovenian word to enter the world lexicon) and then we arrived in Ljubljana.  A walking tour was starting just 15 minutes after we checked in to H2Ostel, so we hurried over and took a tour through old town. The river running through the city, with each distinctive bridge, is really lovely. We took a funicular up to the castle on top of the hill and explored all around. While we were in town, a 4 night street festival was happening, so each night there were acrobatics, stilt dancing, juggling, drum lines, etc going on.

Dragon Bridge, Ljubljana
Stilt Dancers

We took a bus out to the “impossibly romantic” Lake Bled, just five miles from the Austrian border. We walked around the lake and jumped in and swam in the cold Alpine water. A small island with a castle on it completes the setting. From Lake Bled, a short 2 mile shuttle bus took us to Vintgar Gorge. A wooden walkway and paths twist and turn alongside a blue-green river coming straight out of the Julian Alps, just beautiful.

Vintgar Gorge
Chris at Lake Bled


Lake Bled and the Island Castle

Then we were off to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. A walking tour helped get us oriented and learn a bit about the history of the city, as well as suggest a few places to eat. We had “struk”, a strudel-like dish, twice while we were there. Omg, so good. I visited the Museum of Broken Relationships while Chris took a break to see a movie. We spent some time in a 200 year old wine cellar. We ate Sri Lankan curry. We liked Zagreb a lot.

Deah in Zagreb


Mmmm Struck!
Croatian "Naive" art: oil painting on glass
Croatian “Naive” Art: oil painting on glass



We took a bus south to Plitvice Lakes National Park, staying at a guesthouse just outside the park. We spent two days in the park- 16 terraced lakes  that cascade down into waterfalls created by the travertine rock. The lakes stretch over four miles long, with walking paths alongside and boardwalks crossing over some lakes, allowing some stunning photos of the crystal clear water. A ferry and two trams help take visitors to the farthest reaches of the park, and then you can spend the day strolling back to one of the two main entrances. A UNESCO world heritage site, Plitvice is not to be missed.

Plitvice National Park
Amazing Lakes at Plitvice

Split, the location of Diocletian’s palace- the only Roman Emperor to ever retire from office- was next.  Built in the 4th century, the basic walls still exist, as well as the mausoleum containing Diocletian’s remains, the Temple of Jupiter, a bell tower, and two sphinxes brought from Egypt. We had a great meal in Split consisting of gnocchi with prosciutto and truffles in a Dalmatian cream sauce, and sampled some local wines. We also took a day to visit the beach in Split, our first time in the Adriatic.

At the beach in Split
Deah in the Bell Tower of Diocletian’s Palace
Diocletian’s Palace, outside walls
Inside the walls, Diocletian’s Palace


What the palace looked like, 400 CE

Our final stop in Croatia was Dubrovnik. After a long but stunning bus ride along the coast, with views of the blue sea, green islands, and holiday villas and resorts, we arrived. Dubrovnik is the “city of stairs” and it took 326 stairs up to reach our guesthouse, or the no.3 bus all the way up and 134 steps down. Our first destination was the walled Old City, now better known as “King’s Landing” from Game of Thrones. We hiked up to the fort above the walled city to get a lovely view of the city from above at sunset. Inside the walled city, the usual mix of restaurants, ice creameries, medieval churches. Byzantine walls, and souvenir shops awaited. Rows and rows of Game of Thrones merchandise- as well as Star Wars VIII, scenes of which were also filmed there. We went to a beach in Dubrovnik as well, and watched the massive cruise ships come and go as we sipped a cool  pivo in the hot sun.

Next stop on our trip: Bosnia.

At the beach; watching the cruise ships come in
Inside Old Dubrovnik
Entering Pile Gate, Old Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik from Fortress
Chris at Dubrovnik


Sunset from our guest house

July 2017: Italy and San Marino

A few days after work ended for the summer, I met up with Chris in Bologna. After finishing the Camino Santiago, he spent a couple of days in Porto, then flew to France and visited Monaco, Genoa, Cinque Terre, and La Spezia by train, then met up with me.


Bologna is a fairly small city, with only a few historic or touristic attractions- and of course amazing food.  We walked through the academic area of the city, home to the University of Bologna, Europe’s oldest, extant university. I went on a short guided tour of its library, including its hand-written card catalogue which includes over a million items. We saw the two remaining city towers, leftovers from the days when rival families would build tall fortress-like towers as either protection or simply to outdo the neighbors. Only two remain, one of which leans at an alarming angle. After researching some food tour websites, we settled on lunch at Nonna Aurora’s, to try the tortellini in brodo (meat broth) and the tagliatelle ragu (what we call Bolognaise sauce). Delicious. Bologna has 38 km of covered walkways, or porticoes, making it an excellent city for walking around in, even if it’s raining or hot out- you are nearly always under cover. The city hosts a film festival each summer, out in the main square, and so on Thursday night we watched a very odd 1968 Italian movie by Ferreri with subtitles, under the stars, while eating gelato of course.


San Marino

Micro-states count as countries, so  we didn’t want to miss the chance to go to San Marino. We took a train down to Remini, then a bus up to the mountain country. The air was cold and quite windy when we arrived, and the view was magnificent. Our hotel was like a little alpine lodge. We took a tiny shuttle train up to the top of the city, and visited the castle’s two towers and the Armes Antica museum- weapons and arms from the Middle Ages. It was actually a really great museum and I’m glad we went to it. Of course the views from the castle were just outstanding. It’s easy to see how San Marino, Europes oldest republic (dating back to 301 AD) has never been captured. The next morning, we went back into the main historic area and visited the Palazzo Publica and the State Museum, both very good. Then we returned to Rimini, and took a train to Venice.



The Most Serene Republic of Venice was founded by refugees from the Italian mainland, as the Huns and the Goths decimated the Roman Empire in the 5th century. The islands out in the lagoon offered protection from the invaders, and over two centuries, the marshy land was stabilized by millions of tree trunks driven into the ground, and waterproof marble  from Croatia  was used to keep the water from eroding the foundations and walkways. Now Venice is comprised of 124 islands (118 natural, six reclaimed land), and visited by more than 56,000 tourists per day. In earlier centuries, Venice sank approximately 2 cm per century, but now 20cm in the past hundred years, due in large part to the cruise ships and the water they displace/erosion from their wake  (after 2018 the cruise ships will be docking off to the side). We did two walking tours in Venice- one on the art and architecture- which was incredible and we were shown the insides of all kinds of buildings and churches that had Titians, Tintorettos, and Bellinis hanging in them, free to the public- and one on the history of Venice, focusing on St Marks square. We also visited a crazy bookstore where they keep the books in gondolas and bathtubs, crossed dozens of bridges, drank many spritzes, and ate gelati. The Biannual Arts Exhibition was going on, with over 100 countries hosting pavilions featuring art from their national artists in buildings that are usually closed up for years at at time- a great chance to sneak peaks at the insides of Venetian palaces and former warehouses. We went to the Azerbaijan and Iraq exhibits, both very interesting.  But Venice is super crowded during the day (before 11 am and after 6 pm it’s not so bad) and super expensive, so we decided that we’d seen enough and headed east.



Two hours on a train, and we arrived in Trieste. We spent the afternoon walking around the beachfront and the main historic district. We found a James Joyce museum (he and Rilke both lived here for a bit) and had a huge lunch at a Greek restaurant. There’s a strong Byzantine influence here, with several Greek Orthodox churches. We also visited some Roman ruins, an amphitheater from the 1st century and a gate to the old Roman city. There’s a Middle Ages castle here as well, which we walked up to, although it was closed (but the doorman let us peek inside the gates for a quick two minutes). A sailboat regatta was going on and we got to watch some of the sailboats for a while on the beautiful Adriatic Sea.