plitvice and painkillers / sarajevo

Plitvice and painkillers

A four-hour round trip via bus lay in store for me as I embarked on a daytrip from Zagreb, travelling south to Plitvice Lakes National Park, the tourist drawcard containing the tantalising prospect of a network of some 16 lakes and waterfalls sat amongst lofty mountain peaks.

Though I’d noted that the site went into hibernation from October to February, it was by now mid-March and t-shirt weather, plus the owner of my hostel ensured me the park was open for business. So, unperturbed by the fact I’d been socialising until the early hours on my first night in Zagreb, I set out on a bright Spring morning.

After grabbing a bottle of water to re-hydrate myself I was relieved to make a successful rendezvous with the necessary transport. Following a pleasant couple of hours on the road during which I caught up on some reading, I hopped off the bus in the thickly-wooded national park and followed the sign’s to the park’s main entrance.

I was alone, the silence deafening.

“Hmmm, this is strange,” I thought to myself. “There doesn’t seem to be anybody about”.

Despite a smattering of days-old snow on the ground, conditions could be described as ‘very good’, but soon I would discover the ticket and information booths to be closed up. I consoled myself in the prior knowledge that one was required to take a guided tour to access the mini-buses and boats needed to see the various lakes (unless, I guess, you’re both a seasoned triathlete and mountaineer) and that you had a choice of several tours of varying duration.

It occurred to me that I might have to wait until the park’s transport swung by the entrance to embark on my chosen three-hour tour. But once 20 minutes had past I began to suspect the worst.

After much pacing, soul-searching and anguish I decided to walk to the closest lake myself in the hope I might come across a staff member, if not some transport action. No cigar on either front.

I spent a further half hour or so pottering about the edge of what was a beautiful lake glistening in the midday sun. I tried to fight the realisation the park was closed; that I would not be able to see any more than this small, albeit impressive, glimpse of the park.

To compound matters my head had begun to thump; that great friend of man, the killer hangover, had decided to join me on my daytrip. My best bet seemed to be to hike back up to the bus stop and get the next back to Zagreb so as to salvage something from the day. Helpfully, a bus timetable was posted on the wall ticket booth, however it informed me the next bus was due to drive through at 5pm.

It was now around 1pm and I felt faint and breathless, as though a small mammal had relieved itself inside my skull. I needed to eat. There was nowhere from which I could procure food.

And so during the next four hours I tried in vain to make myself comfortable in the road-side bus shelter, all the while ruing that I hadn’t packed any more water, let alone some painkillers, with which to ease my self-inflicted pain that increased by the second. Every ten minutes or so I would wander from the road up an embankment to retrieve some snow to swallow or lather all over my cranium.

When the bus pulled in around 5:30pm, it was to me a rescue craft. Zagreb beckoned.

Back at the hostel I foraged deep into my backpack to find my box of Nurofen. Secondly, I headed to an Indian restaurant in the upper town for some belated sustenance. And, conservatively, I ordered a potato and spinach curry and some rice. The waitress returned to utter an amusing epilogue to my day:

“We don’t have rice.”



A ruined city reborn

(added March 2011; originally published by Open Road, February 2009)

The walkways in central Sarajevo have an eerie difference. Look closely and you’ll see blemishes on the flagstones that could be the fallout from a temperamental artist hurling paintbrushes in all directions.

They are, rather, hand-sized craters caused by exploding mortar shells. Painted with red resin and known as ‘Sarajevo roses’, these potholes serve to remind visitors what Bosnia’s cosmopolitan and resilient capital has endured.

Notorious as the location of the royal assassination that snowballed into World War I, Sarajevo subsequently leaped to prominence through its hosting of the 1984 Winter Olympics and, later, when it was cut off from the outside world amid the conflict surrounding the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation. Around 12,000 inhabitants lost their lives during the 1992-1995 siege, with a further 50,000 wounded.

Another throwback to this darker time is the stretch of underground tunnel located in an otherwise unremarkable domestic home near the airport. The site is now a museum dedicated to the undetected 800m tunnel through which goods (and some people) were sent in and out of the city during the siege.

These days, tourist traffic to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is beginning to gather momentum. While Croatia’s stunning Dalmatian coastline remains the Balkan regionís hot spot, and Slovenia’s central European serenity provides a relaxing alpine retreat, Bosnia and Herzegovina can boast a countryside of snow-capped mountains and lakes, together with cities and towns that showcase a unique melting pot of Christian and Ottoman (Turkish) culture and architecture. Word on the street in Sarajevo is that backpacker numbers are rising sharply; and wherever this group goes, the wider tourist market usually follows.

Coming into Bosnia on an eight-hour bus ride from Belgrade dictated that I first pass through Republika Srpska. Although the economic hardship of the Bosnian Serb republic was evident at times, the rocky countryside was stunning; all the more so on this day because of heavy snow. The bus terminated on the outskirts of Sarajevo but, fortunately, it took only a short cab ride into town to reach my hostel, situated in Bascarsija, Sarajevo’s must-see Turkish quarter.

I had reason to be anxious, however: I was more or less flat broke after a Croatian cash machine swallowed my bank card a week earlier.

Thankfully, after a find-my-bearings stroll that evening, I got news that a funds transfer had come through. After the dawn-to-dusk excesses in a sun-drenched Zagreb and the hustle and bustle of windswept Belgrade, I relished the chance to recharge my batteries in sparsely populated Sarajevo, which was the most vibrant and interesting urban centre I encountered in the Balkans.

Home to the prominent and ornate Gazi-Husrev Beg mosque, Bascarsija is a spectacularly colourful and odorous maze of narrow lanes crammed with pocket-sized cafes, eateries serving local specialties like cevapi (grilled meat served on a plate) and burek (greasy filled pastries), and the shops of local craftsmen; in particular, the street given over to coppersmiths should not be missed. Rain and snow failed to dampen the aromas of freshly baked bread and grilled meats and did not obscure the backdrop of minarets and snow-topped mountains. Here, with my stomach grumbling, I tasted my first burek (common fillings include meat, cheese, spinach, pumpkin or potato). I went with the potato option (ëkrompirusaí) and became addicted ñ these carbohydrate-filled morsels sustained me throughout my stay in Bosnia.

With temperatures barely above zero, my week in the city called for strategic sightseeing, so I fortified myself with hot food and beverages between daily forays. From hillsides littered with graveyards, to Latin Bridge (where the Serb student Gavril Princip shot the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in 1914), to grand old buildings scarred by shelling, reminders of the city’s troubled past are everywhere. Most imposing is the once-sumptuous Bosnian national library, which now lies in ruins following calculated firebombing in 1992. Still operating is the town’s bustling central market, where 60-odd people perished as a result of a mortar attack in 1994, along with the Sarajevsko brewery, which became the city’s main water supply during the siege.

Beyond its historical attractions, Sarajevo is chock-a-block with cafes, bars, eateries and bookshops – which came in handy as I spent several lunchtimes and evenings taking refuge from the elements in these places. But the city’s array of museums also offers a fascinating respite from the cold. I was delighted to discover my visit had coincided with the Historical Museum staging an exhibition dedicated to life during the siege. Here I spent a good couple of hours captivated by the numerous photographs, newspaper reports and propaganda, as well as displays of shell and weapon fragments. The highlight had to be the exhibit of practical everyday items designed by a resourceful population starved of food, water and medical goods.

The acclaimed BBC reporter-turned-author, Martin Bell (one of the most prominent members of the foreign press corps present during the Balkan conflict) believes you never really know a place until you’ve made love or been arrested there. By that measure I cannot really say I know Sarajevo, though I did have a minor brush with the local law.

You see, I’d been conscientiously buying tram tickets from the kiosks provided, but had read somewhere that you could either pre-buy tickets or get them from the driver. At this particular point I wanted to board at a stop that didn’t have a kiosk nearby and fully intended to get a ticket from the driver. But when I boarded this did not appear to be an option. I should have asked someone but preferring to avoid the language barrier, I decided I’d just travel without a ticket.

Next thing I knew, a scary-looking inspector with a glass eye was muttering something to me in Croat-Serbian. I shook my head to indicate I didnít have a ticket. He began repeatedly bellowing “Ticket!” at me, which I feebly countered with, “No ticket, sorry.”

Then a younger inspector with better English took charge. He whipped out a pad, scribbled a hefty fine, and slapped it down in my hand. There was no point arguing…

So perhaps I do have some insight by Mr Bell’s measure. What I do know is that a visit to Sarajevo – with its population of around 300,000, few overt signs of tourism and locals who mind their own business – makes for an eye-opening and hassle-free experience.

Just be sure to buy your tram ticket at a kiosk.

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