Catha's Seat

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Days 42 to 46: A first taste of the Middle East - Bosnia

Up until this point the only new country I had visited was Slovenia, and that was only for a couple of hours. Bosnia hit me as quite a change; from the insistent “no photo” warnings at the border to Cyrillic script and first Minarets, I felt somewhere quite alien for the first time – how exciting!

The beginning of day 42 was characterised by small oranges – countless stalls sold the fruit I had previously assumed only to come from the Iberian peninsular on our continent. One of the joys of cycling is the ability to stop and take in the local produce, so we stopped at the display with the richest colour. After catching us for a pretty touristy price the seller spotted our tents. He mentioned how he had been in the war and now had problems with his joints, limbs and back from camping in the freezing cold. The last war here, and associated soreness is still omnipresent in the area as we would encounter over the weeks to come.

Small oranges and tales of the war

After visiting Počitelj; a 15th Century Ottoman settlement complete with Castle and seemingly very little in the way of health & safety regulations, we ploughed on towards Mostar until ….pop, Alex’s rear tyre exploded. This was somewhat ironic considering that the last week had been filled with discussions about whether he should bring me a larger set of tyres for Scott to avoid a continuation of the spate of pinch punctures I was having with the thin 700x28 tyres. Investigation showed a sharp rock had split the tyre and Alex, a geologist, cursed, “I know the rock type, I should have known it was sharp!”

Views of Pocitelj (photos courtesy of E A Gow)
Mostar was one of the places that had really inspired me when planning the trip; a stunning bridge across a deep gorge dividing Muslim and Christian parts of the city; a focal point of news reports in 1992-93 when the bridge was destroyed. The atmosphere did not disappoint although the bridge was somewhat smaller than I had expected! At the hostel I encountered a strange coincidence; after playing europop the guy behind the desk put on a relatively obscure Pink Floyd song (“Coming Back to Life” from the album “The Division Bell”) that I had been singing to myself all the way down the Croatian coast. Although I tried to impress upon my fellow PF appreciator how “bump in the night” this was he wasn’t interested.

View of the Mostar Bridge - "a little smaller than I had expected" - but still it's got to be about 15 meters high and they hold regular diving competitions!!

With the weather looking good we decided to skip the planned day off and head straight to Sarajevo. Our host there – Alma - had rightly been worried about our intention to cycle into the capital city considering it had snowed heavily the previous week and we would need to take the main road across a relatively high mountain pass. She had sent relentless communication encouraging us to take alternative transport. Luck was on our side though; it was warm, calm and quiet on the roads. 

Cycling through the "Valleys" to Sarajevo - it looks a bit like Wales! (photo left courtesy of E A Gow)

The final stretch into the centre however, was not so kind. As mountains surround Sarajevo, thick smog engulfed the city and the route we had chosen followed 3 lane carriageways filled with impatient Saturday evening traffic. We passed the “Holiday Inn” we had seen repeatedly on news reports during the siege in the 1990s, swerved across tramlines and finally arrived, completely worn out at the Sebilj monument as dusk fell. Around the monument it was buzzing; being the Asian side of the city and more specifically the Bazaar area. Alma found us drinking “Bosnian Coffee” and quickly helped us find suitable accommodation. Filled with Persian rugs, rustic brickwork and tiled floors the hotel certainly had an Eastern appeal. One surprise was that there was no hot water and as we would later find out no water at all at certain periods; the infrastructure must be still recovering.

Alex and I with our host Alma looking over Sarajevo from the Castle (photo courtesy of E A Gow)

Alma, a friend of Bojan, had kindly taken her weekend out to show us around her hometown. The most gracious host, she insisted on inviting us for everything. We got stuck in immediately by trying a local delicacy, Çevapçiçi, which are small spiced lamb meatballs formed into a short sausage shape, served in a flatbread with chopped onion and optional yoghurt. 

A welcome day off the bikes began with the Ottoman fry up – eggs sunny side up with either spinach or meat served in a small cast iron pan. Alma showed us the sights with some notable highlights:
Not too far from the corner where Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking the First World War, there lies the city library. The building of the original library in the 18th Century had caused some friction; a proud homeowner refused to give up his home to make way for the new construction. Even with the best financial offers he stubbornly stayed put until eventually a deal was reached with that involved the city arranging for the entire house to be dismantled and reconstructed on the other side of the river. Now a traditional Bosnian restaurant we were able to enjoy local specialities sitting in an octagonal window box overhanging the street.

Bosnian Coffee with the bike journal & lunching with Alma in the place used to be on the other side of the River - many thanks to Alma for being a fantastic host for our time in Sarajevo (photo left courtesy of E A Gow)
The second highlight was a trip on a tram to the South West of the City to take a relaxing Sunday walk through a straight, tree lined road to the source of the Bosna river, where we were able to drink pure, unadulterated mountain spring water.

The next day was another Monday back at the office. Leaving Sarajevo we plunged quickly back in-between sparsely populated mountainous landscapes that we joked had reminded us of Wales.

We met Randy and Joris on the way to Visegrad - they are travelling to Singapore and were using water pistols to fend off the stray dogs!

After a stop in a particularly rural joint for lunch, we descended at pace on smooth, damp roads. Following Alex at over 30mph I suddenly lost control of the front wheel and I was on the floor, still clipped into Scott, sliding against the tarmac. Shocked, I finally came to a halt with luckily very little damage, apart from the sad loss of the cover of the pink bell given to me by Romain and Caro. The rest of the day continued through valleys and unlit tunnels, beside wide rivers that occasionally broke out into lakes, until we reached the border town of Visegrad; home to the “Bridge on the Drina” made famous in Ivo Andric’s nobel prize winning book of the same name. It turned out the Bosnian film director Emir Kusterica is a fan of the book is in the process of rebuilding the old town as a set for a film. He has also installed a Cinema, which in a ridiculous stroke of luck we found out was playing the new James Bond “Skyfall” that Alex and I had been talking about trying to see just the day before!

The Bridge on the Drina at Visegrad - subject of Ivo Andric's Nobel Prize winning book (photo courtesy of E A Gow)

Our last day in Bosnia greeted us with sun and blue skies. With only 35 miles to our next destination we took the morning off at the thermal spa at Visegrad Banja. Not really knowing what we were in for we climbed up a secluded road to a 60s soviet looking building with staff in white coats; a rehabilitation centre by all accounts. In broken language and signals we were shown to the Hamam. 

Hamam...time! (photo courtesy of E A Gow)
A magical small, square, domed Ottoman building; ochre walls covered in a patchwork of green and blue algae with rays of light penetrating through around a dozen holes in the dome and cutting through the steam like spotlights at a show. After soaking in the spa water for an hour we floated back onto our bikes and off towards Serbia.   

Inside the Ottoman Hamam (photo courtesy of E A Gow)

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