Saturday 28 July 2012

More from Bosnia-Herzegovina

I have already written about some of my favourite parts of Sarajevo - the art nouveau architecture, the coffee, the cakes...but I must also mention a couple of other things. Regular readers will know that in addition to coffee and cake, I have a passion for books and book shops. Sarajevo has many good quality book shops and there is clearly a burgeoning publishing industry here with many well produced local titles. Several book shops carry at least some titles in English but my favourite has to be Sahinpasic, located near to the Europa Hotel where I picked up a couple of treasures - Sarajevo Rose, subtitled a Balkan Jewish Notebook and Forgotten Sarajevo - a truly wonderful collection of old photographs of the city, many retouched with colour. Fantastic. Incidentally, the rebuilt Hotel Europa is worth a visit to sample the above average priced, but very good cakes in their Vienna Cafe.

Speaking of books, I have almost finished reading the Nobel prize winner Ivo Andric's The Bridge Over the Drina which follows the history of the bridge at Visegrad, built during the Ottoman period and its relationship with the city and its inhabitants over the next several hundred years up to the tragic events of 1914. The story is interesting, tracing the changing relationships between the city's different ethnic groups, the ongoing struggle for independence from the Turks and then from the Austrians and also the day to day lives, loves and struggles of Visegrad's citizens. Andric was born in Travnik of Croatian parents, served in the pre-war government and then again under Tito. The book is controversial in some quarters with what is described as an anti-Muslim/ Turkish stance, but I don't think it is as clear as that, with several Muslim characters being drawn sympathetically. Read it and make your own mind up.

I must also mention my hotel - Pansion Kandilj, a small, cosy, family-run hotel just a few minutes walk from the Latinska Bridge and the old city. The Kandilj (meaning candle) is very comfortable, has free wi-fi (and PC access if you don't have your laptop with you), and provides a nice breakfast with all the usual things plus omelettes to order! But, more important than this, the staff are extremely helpful, friendly and knowledgeable and can arrange tours and drivers to other parts of the country. The common areas are set out and decorated in Ottoman style and there is a nice small terrace area for evening relaxation. Good price too.

Sarajevo is a fairly small city so its easy to see a lot of it in a short time. One of the good things about this, is that it means you can squeeze a lot into a short trip and some of the country's most interesting sites are within a couple of hours drive of the city. Having agreed a very reasonable price with one of the staff from the Pansion Kandilj, we visited Mostar and Blagaj, two of Herzegovina's most beautiful locations.

The drive from Sarajevo to Mostar took about two hours - some of it on the very small amount of motorway the country has, but almost all of it through stunning scenery. This country is extremely green and mountainous, still has forests and it is still possible to see bears, wolves and other wild animals. I didn't see any on this drive, but when stopping to take some road side photographs, it was possible to hear wild pigs in the forest.

Mostar was our first stop and arriving on the Bosnian side of the city, we made straight for the famous bridge. The bridge at Mostar stood for more than 400 years and was a symbolic link between the two halves of this small and ancient city. Destroyed during the war in the 1990's, the bridge has been completely restored, again attracts many visitors and dominates the centre of the city, just begging to be photographed and admired. The bridge is faithfully restored to the original design of Ottoman architect, Hajrudin, a pupil of the famous Hodja Mimar Sinan who designed many of Istanbul's best loved buildings.

The Mostar Diving Club has its home on the bridge and during peak tourist periods, young divers can be seen dropping the 21 metres from the high point of the bridge into the summer water level of the shallow River Neretva below. They don't do it just for fun though. Each dive is a performance which begins with the diver climbing over the railings at the peak of the bridge and teasing the tourists about jumping. One of his colleagues takes a hat around to collect money to encourage the diver, who gradually prepares for the jump  - removing the t-shirt, then the shorts, then hanging from the railings, perhaps climbing back on to the bridge and feigning disinterest until enough money is in the hat. Then very quickly, the diver is back over the railings, composing himself, bends his knees and then he's gone to the gasps of the crowd and (at least on the two dives I saw) quickly resurfaces down below the bridge.

The narrow street on the other side of the bridge is filled with small tourist shops selling postcards, guide books, home made jewellery, a variety of trinkets and some interesting goodies such as hand made herbal soaps - I bought some for my mum! This side of the river also has a number of small cafes including the high level Terrace Cafe which has great views of the bridge, the streets below and the many tourists that have began to pour back into Mostar. There are also some interesting roof top views here and a great view of an old building gradually being overtaken by vegetation! The Terrace Cafe has a slightly relaxed attitude to service, but then it was 40 degrees on the day of our visit and the coffee and cherry cake were very good once they arrived.

Strolling through Mostar, walking through the main tourist area, there are a number of interesting sites, including the Koski Mehmed Pasha mosque built in 1617, again with great views of the bridge and the river and a small bazaar in the grounds of the building. A little further along comes the Kara Ozbegova mosque which has a very cooling and beautiful external lobby, which afforded us a little shelter as we felt the first drops of rain during our stay in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is one of the most important Islamic monuments in the country and was completed in 1557 to the design of the great Sinan. Badly damaged during the 1990's war, serious restoration work is now under way.

However, for me, the star of the show is the 17th century Biscevica House, located a few steps away from the main drag. For a couple of marks admission fee, you can visit the first floor divanhan (conversation room) preserved in Ottoman style as well as an inner room overlooking the river. The house is decorated with Ottoman era furnishings, carpets and household items, including an "Ottoman" or storage trunk with beautiful if faded original decoration. The upper floor of the house affords views into the shady, whitewashed courtyard. It is easy to imagine generations of residents and visitors enjoying this cool retreat from the heat of Herzegovinian summers.

A short drive from Mostar brought us to Blagaj. Blagaj is best known for the Dervish tekija, or monastery. Built in the 1500's for a Dervish cult, the tekija stands at the base of a 200 metres high cliff wall and overlooking the source of the River Buna, which is larger than the source of the Danube.  The tekija itself has a quiet, peaceful atmosphere despite the large number of visitors every year and contains  a number of Islamic religious implements and artefacts spread throughout the various sitting and prayer rooms. The wooden lattice work is also interesting and the decorated wooden ceiling in one of the larger rooms is extremely unusual, featuring twisted wood. Visitors can also walk out onto an outside balcony which gives good views of the cliff and the water.

Less well known, but well worth a visit is the Velagic House, approached by walking down a steep lane on the approach to the tekija. The complex was built in 1766 and consists of three houses with courtyards, a guesthouse, a mill, granary, water channels and beautiful gardens. Visitors are shown round by a member of the Velagic family who originated in Hungary and who still own the house. We were guided around the parts of the house that were open by Mirza, a very knowledgeable teenager who speaks good English and is clearly very proud of his family's heritage.

Much of the house is under restoration and it should attract many more visitors once the work is complete. Photographs are allowed in the house itself, but rather strangely not in the very attractive and peaceful garden. Mirza explained to us that this is because of some "problem" with a neighbour who does not like them to have visitors and objects most strongly to photographs. We actually saw this neighbour during our visit who stood scowling across at us from his own garden. Very strange, but don't let this put you off. The house has some beautiful Ottoman area furnishings and some very charming and interesting historical photographs as well as an opportunity to see some of the prized possessions of the Velagic family. Well worth a visit.

All of this in one day and still back to Sarajevo in time for dinner and the evening promenade. And of course, coffee and cake at Samis!

For more pictures from Bosnia-Herzegovia, view the "otherness website" here.

1 comment:

  1. It's great that people travel not only to Paris and Barcelona, but also to the beautiful cities from Eastern Europe.