“One of those places where you come as a guest, leave as an acquaintance, and return as a friend” — Nenad Velickovic
The Bosnia we know from images of the war — the bombed and bullet-ridden buildings, the scars from the 1,200-day siege of Sarajevo — has kept from view a Bosnia we don’t know, a place where Nature has been big-hearted with its gifts. The country described sometimes as the heart between the mouths of two lions, hosts one of the two greatest tracks of primeval forests in Europe, unmatched biodiversity, daunting mountain faces yet to be climbed, deep gorges yet to be traversed, wild rivers with water so pure you can cup your hand to drink, some of the highest concentrations of wildlife, and perhaps the last highland tribes of semi-nomadic peoples on the continent. In many ways, Bosnia today has what the rest of Europe has lost.
With Laura Huber of the BBC, who in the 90s served as a teacher in Sarajevo, I head to Bosnia with a skeptic’s shrug to do some hiking, rafting and climbing throughout the country. We began with a bear quest in Sutjeska National Park, about two twisting hours by car from Sarajevo. The park is 17,500 hectares, larger than some small countries, with no trail maps or guides. When we step into this cathedral of old-growth beech and black pine, there is recognition that we are probably the only ones here.
Tourism is still a secret here. We make our way to an overview at the base of Bosnia’s highest peak, the 7,828-foot-high Maglic Mountain on the Montenegrin border, the last great sigh of the Alps extending south from Switzerland. From here we set out to hike to an Alpine aerie to look for bears, wolves, and wild goats, chamois. Before the war, Bosnia had the second highest concentration of brown bears in the world, after Canada, and perhaps the greatest number of wolves in Europe, and chamois were so ubiquitous they would sometimes leap over hikers’ heads. Now, nobody knows how many remain, but some in the area guess perhaps as many as 1,000 bears, which would still rank highest in the region.
But we find no bears on our quest. Nor wild goats, nor wolves. Just waving fields of wildflowers, and the perfumed Alpine wind. But that is fine, as the beauty is exquisite, almost intoxicating, and I sit for an hour or so in some sort of state of bliss.
As the sun burns out the remnants of the day, we make our way to one of the first eco-lodges in the country, Motel Sunce, up a long dirt road atop the windswept Podvelezje Plateau, roosting beneath a stunning mountain ridge called Velez. The lodge is modest and fashioned from concrete — not the western vision of an eco-lodge, but the food is organically grown, and certainly the staff is local. No monies being drained away to multinationals here. After we sup on organically grown peppers stuffed with beef and rice, traditional salad and soup with hyper-crisp fresh vegetables, farmers’ cheese, and share a glass of homemade Herzegovinian rakija, there is a feeling of having found a little peace of mind on a wilderness table in the back of Bosnia.
The Neretva River is the Nile of Bosnia. For centuries it was the passageway from the sea to the riches of the interior, the river road up which sailed explorers, settlers, traders, and conquerors, from the Illyrians to the Romans to the Ottomans to the Austro-Hungarians to the Serbs and Croats in attempts to plunder or possess this land. And just as the Nile has the pyramids, the Thames its London Bridge, the Seine its Eiffel Tower, San Francisco its Golden Gate, all emblems that transcend the tyranny of geography and politics, Bosnia for 500 years had Stari Most, the gracious single-span link across the Neretva.
Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1559, completed seven years later, the elegant bow withstood earthquakes, floods, battles, and two world wars. But on November 9, 1993, Croat forces pummeled the little footbridge with tank shells, and after long resistance, it fell like a proud warrior into the crying, hissing currents. For a moment, denominations on all sides were united in grief over a cherished monument destroyed. The hearts of thousands sank with the stone.
But on July 22, 2004, nine years after the war ended, the bridge reopened, and the sky was lit not with the lights of conflict, but with fireworks, the pyrotechnics of peace. The symbolism happily cried with cliché, the bridge over the ethnic gap, connecting East and West, church to mosque, the past to the future. And it brought back a proud tradition that dated back to the Ottomans: the Mostari Bridge Divers.
The Mostaris were the original bridge keepers, who maintained the 100-foot span and took tolls from those who passed. In the 17th century, however, a Turkish travel writer described how young men would jump from the 80-foot-high bridge as a rite of passage. The Mostari today jump for tourists, and their touro-euros.
On the bridge’s western abutment at the entrance to the Mostari Divers Club, we meet Ermin Saric, one of the eight official bridge divers, meaning he dives professionally, it’s his job. He’s been diving since age 14, and is 24 now, and says he will dive as long as he can. He thinks the body can handle the punishment until around 50, at which point the shock of the cold water might trigger a heart attack. Ermin says about one or two people die each year diving, and there are many injuries, but all these casualties are from nonprofessionals—swaggering tourists, locals on a dare, Saturday night drunks. As long as Ermin can remember there have been no fatalities among club members, as they know how to dive it right.
Ermin offers to demonstrate. He skips the part where he passes a floppy hat to tourists lining the parapets — ever since the bridge was listed as a World Heritage Site, the number of visitors has steadily increased, as have the fortunes of the divers. As he stands at the apex, he drenches his head and limbs in cold, cold water from a big bottle to acclimatize his body for the freezing Neretva. He climbs over the matrix of metal bars that protect innocents from the precipice, and then he “enters into the world of diving.” There are butterflies in his stomach; they have yet to go away after all these years and countless jumps. Then he spreads his arms as though flying in the wind and leaps into the void.
About two-thirds of the way down, he draws his arms tight against his sides, and firms his legs straight and fast against one another. He tucks his chin against his chest, and points his toes to the fast-approaching water. Then he hits the river “like a bullet,” and with a sound like glass shattering he disappears. There is an awful silence as all who watch hold a collective breath … and then, whoosh, Ermin’s head pops to the surface, and he swims to shore. If the demand is there, Ermin will jump six or seven times today.
There’s no health care or insurance with this job, certainly no job security. But Ermin is thankful to be a Mostari, and he admits there are perks: no local women are divers, but they admire the men who are, and Ermin is never without girlfriends, he grins.
Although Mostar is far and away the most famed feature of the Neretva, there is more delight downstream. A short drive takes us to the delta, where the Neretva begins its fan into the Adriatic, right on the Croatian-Bosnian border. Not only have waves of armies flowed up this waterway, but also thousands of birds, who biannually migrate from Africa, across the Mediterranean, up this corridor into Europe for the summer, then back again. The biggest bird resort in Europe sits along these banks.
A bit farther up the river is Pocitelj, an art colony among the fig trees, shaded by the labyrinthine walls of Sahat-kula, the Ottoman fort strategically situated above the Neretva so that watchmen could see approaching invaders for miles. The mosque in the fort has been superbly rebuilt after being razed during the war, and the grand watchtower allows unobstructed views of the limestone-encased river with water clear as local brandy.
Up the Buna River, a Neretva tributary near Mostar, there is a karst cave that seems to deliver cherished secrets as clearly as if uttered with a voice. At its side shines the 17th-century Velagic House, a dervish monastery. The water, filtered by the porous rock, spills like the translucent eyes of an eagle. Swallows sing and flit. This is a back eddy of Bosnia, spared the wounds of war. Glades of trees stand tall, the stream runs pure, the monastery lusters as it has for 400 years. This the way Bosnia used to be, and what it aspires to be again in the future.
Down the road is Medugorje, famous for its apparitions of the Virgin Mary, which first appeared to six children in 1981, and in wake has prompted countless pilgrims to visit, spawning a considerable religious tourism industry. Less known are the wineries of the region, including some of the oldest in Europe, such as the Vinarija Stankela Stanko winery. Climbing down into a 400 year-old wine cellar where the walls are lined with bottles stacked in terracotta earthenware tubes, the owner, Vasilj Stanko, produces the largest tasting glasses in the world, and fills them to the brim with a 90-year-old vintage.
He offers up cheese, bread, and a dry cured dried ham on a cutting stand, and we slowly try to sip the hospitality. But before we make much of a dent, he serves up another specialty, Extra Loza, the local grape brandy, and we capitulate and offer to buy a trunk-load of his wines, and head to the sunlight.
Want more of Bosnia? Read the rest of this article online at MSNBC