Stunning landscapes of Eastern Europe
interrupted by remaining scars of the 1990s civil war in former Yugoslavia
By Doug Bruggeman, Guest Contributor
As a high school history teacher, I have always dreamt of traveling to Europe and seeing the many places I have studied over the years.
I imagined seeing the ancient temples of Greece and visiting Athens, the home of democracy. I pictured myself walking the streets of Rome and seeing the ruins of the Roman Empire. The countries of England, France and Germany were also high on my bucket list.
Imagine my surprise when my first journey to Europe included none of these locations but instead landed me in the heart of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was here where my son, Ryan, was pursuing his dream of playing professional basketball and thus the city of Mostar was my first European vacation destination!
As an American growing up during the 1970s and 1980s, I associated our son’s new home as the former eastern European country of Yugoslavia. I was also familiar because of the terrible civil war that occurred there in the early 1990s as Yugoslavia broke apart into a number of different nations.
Remnants of civil war present, decades later
Bosnia-Herzegovina was on the front lines of this devastating civil war and experienced the worst of the ethnic cleansing of this conflict.
Our small Minnesota community of Pelican Rapids is now home to a number of Bosnian refugees which gave my wife and I direct connections to Bosnia. Even with these connections, we had no idea what we were about to experience during our two-week stay.
The Disney movie Beauty and the Beast kept popping up in my mind as a way to summarize all we saw and experienced. We came back to the U.S. with the feelings of; “That was so beautiful and amazing” but also thinking, “wow, they really have suffered and are still struggling.”
The topography of this area is the first thing that jumps out at you. As we flew into the capital city of Sarajevo, a city I associated immediately with the 1984 winter Olympics, the ruggedness was very apparent. Mountain ranges with narrow valleys sprawled out below us as far as the eye could see.
The city of Mostar itself is located southwest of Sarajevo and is about a two-hour drive down through these mountains. We had rented a car and I had printed off road maps but I definitely had some apprehension about finding our way without iPhone maps. The car rental people quickly assured us that we would have “no problem” getting to Mostar as “there is only one road” to our destination!
That “road” was a narrow two-lane highway that wound through the slender valleys we saw from the plane. Thankfully we were able to make this road trip during the day as the mountain scenery was truly majestic. The drive really reminded me of the Rocky Mountains.
Soon, we were traveling alongside a stunning emerald colored river that accompanied us the rest of way to Mostar. Orange roofed homes with smoke rising from their chimneys dotted the valleys adding a warm feeling to the drive.
Scars of war evident on landscape
As we soaked in these scenes of spectacular beauty it was hard not to notice the “Beast” – scars of war and signs that this country is still struggling to rebuild and develop would suddenly bring ourselves back to the reality that this country is still very much affected by its past.
Quaint homes would often be surrounded by buildings that showed damage from the war. Numerous abandoned structures dot both the rural and urban areas. Still more buildings just display the wear and tear of age and the lack of resources to renew them and sometimes even finish what they had started.
One could see that government funded infrastructure was also lagging. Garbage was strewn about both in the city and along rural roads. Wind had blown the trash from overflowing dumpsters at collection points for city neighborhoods and at key locations in the countryside.
You definitely get the feeling that poverty is an issue, but at the same time it created a feeling of a much simpler lifestyle that made me think and compare it to how life was in a bygone era of mid-1900s America.
The city of Mostar only strengthened this feeling of simplicity as neighborhood mom & pop grocery stores, small bakeries, cozy coffee shops and simple restaurants are all within easy walking distance of the homes and apartments of this city.
Bosnia is also a country of beautiful panoramas
Mostar is a city of around 100,000 people and is the second largest city in this country. The city is located less than an hour’s drive from the Adriatic Sea and is very much a hub-city for the region. Mostar marks the beginning of wine country as vineyards cover most of the valleys from here down to the citrus orchards that grow closer to the sea coast.
This part of Bosnia-Herzegovina is considered one of the most beautiful areas to visit and we would agree. The city is situated in one of the many valleys which provides views of snow covered mountain peaks rising all around us and also breathtaking panoramas from roads and outlooks found above the city.
Within minutes you can drive to a number of different sites. We traveled to see the beginning of a river emerging from a cave at the base of a massive cliff. The Kravica waterfalls are absolutely stunning. The ruins of a historical Ottoman-Turkish village of Pocitelj is built into the side of the mountain providing an amazing glimpse into the past and still another spot was a Christian pilgrimage site of Medjugorje.
Famous bridge dates to Turkish rule in 1500s
Back in the city of Mostar, the river we followed on our journey runs directly through the middle of this community and provided the reason to build what is now Mostar’s most famous tourist attraction, the Stari Most.
The Stari Most literally means “old bridge” and that makes sense as it was built by the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s. The bridge was unfortunately destroyed in the civil war but was rebuilt in the early 2000s and today it is seen as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The bridge rises majestically above the river in the part of the city called the “Old Town.” This section of Mostar has been restored to have the feel of life in the 16th century. It is the centerpiece of the tourist industry that continues to return to this community after the destruction that occurred here some thirty years earlier. Mostar was on the frontline of the civil war and you can see reminders of this throughout the city.
Concrete buildings are riddled with bullet marks. A former seven story bank was now only an abandoned skeleton of itself and is simply referred to as “Snipers Tower.” Like the country side we traveled, you cannot go far before you see yet another building that is damaged, burned out and/or left abandoned. The amount of graffiti throughout the city adds to a “rundown” feeling.
The revitalization of this nation is also evident in this urban center. A new shopping mall rises up in the middle of the city. Walmart type stores, grocery chains, business centers and a new hospital show that this area is moving forward. We found many nice restaurants and enjoyed the numerous coffee shops.
Bosnians are underinformed–on health risks of smoking
It was easy to fall in love with sitting in these coffee shops and enjoying this aspect of Bosnian life. I found myself wishing we had more of these types of settings along our river in Pelican Rapids. The only thing that really kept us from totally enjoying the “coffee scene” was the amount of people smoking cigarettes. Like America prior to the 1980s it is like they have not received the memo telling them the health concerns of tobacco. Cigarette smoking starts young and is allowed in public places.
The people we encountered were very kind and helpful to us non-Bosnian speaking foreigners. Prices for meals and beverages were really cheap and the food was really flavorful, especially their breads and meats. The only “sticker shock” moment was when we stopped for gas and figured out that the price per gallon was over $5.50.
People also seem to take a lot of pride in how they dress. It was actually one of the comments we heard from Ryan when we first talked to him. He mentioned how “dressed up” people seem to be all of the time. We discovered the color of choice was definitely black and stylish footwear is seen on both males and females. I do not remember seeing one pair of hole-ridden jeans!
Diversity: Catholic, Orthodox and Muslims
Another interesting take away was the lack of diversity in this country. There are three distinct groups of people in Bosnia-Herzegovina; The Croates (predominately Catholic), Serbs (predominately Orthodox) and Bosniacs (Muslim Bosnians). We, however, were unable to tell one group from the other.
Yes, there were a few of the Muslim women who wore a hijab but not many. One of Ryan’s teammates was from the Congo but besides him we saw no other people of color except for a bus of Chinese tourists!
Black haired Caucasians were the norm and I actually felt out of place with my brownish hair.
Evidence of diversity came from the Mosques with their slender minarets sitting near Christian churches with their bell towers. The influence of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman architecture also showed different cultural influences throughout the history of this area but for us this added to the charm and uniqueness.
We traveled outside the city and saw some spectacular natural wonders and we experienced great hospitality and friendliness wherever we went. We ran across enough people who spoke English to be able to manage quite well.
We did note that the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina were much more stoic in nature. A smile or a wave seemed to be very uncommon in the streets. Part of me wondered if this was a legacy of the tough times that these people have experienced. It did seem to me that many of the younger people, who did not live through the war years, seem to have a more open and smiley demeanor.
Pelican’s Bosnian immigrants prepared Bruggemans for trip
The Bosnians from Pelican Rapids told us how beautiful this area was and we definitely agree that the natural beauty was spectacular. The history of this area was greater than I imagined and I found myself doing a lot of research during the trip.
Because of the “Beast” of war and its legacy, Bosnia-Herzegovina has really become a hidden gem. In fact, the tourist industry along the coast is starting to increase with cruise ships starting to make stops in places like Dubrovnik, Croatia. From this coastal stop, many make the two-hour trip to sites in and around Mostar.
For a European trip that we never would have dreamt of taking, we found ourselves with a great appreciation for the life, culture and sites of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Editor’s note: Longtime Pelican Rapids residents Doug and Sue Bruggeman traveled to Bosnia over the holiday break, to visit their son Ryan–who was playing professional basketball for a team based there, in the city of Mostar. Not long after the visit, Ryan signed with a team in Spain–but he was able host his parents on an unforgettable trip to eastern Europe.