A Back Seat in the Balkans – by before.youre.too.old
Have you ever wondered how easy it is to hitch-hike in the Balkans? Read this amazing story written by our first contributor, who tried it for the first time in Bosnia…
“My proposal is: To set off walking this afternoon. To stop when we are tired.
To get a lift when we can. To walk when we can’t. To do it at once, and do it cheap.”
– An inspiring passage from Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit
Sometimes it’s just better to walk. At least that’s what I say to myself as I stroll through this charming valley in Southern Bosnia. Hitch hiking might not be the most efficient way to get around Eastern Europe, but it’s certainly the most scenic. I stand on yet another famous Bosnian bridge, over the Neretva River in the tiny town of Konjic and stare down into the wide, fast running stream. The river originates in the Spiljani Mountains to the west, and runs so cold and so clear beneath my feet that I can identify a trout with barely a squint. On the grassy banks below, a solitary fisherman appears to be unphased by the abundance of fish and continues snoozing under his hat in the late summer sun. I form the impression that life’s pressures, at least, in this part of Bosnia, are fairly undemanding.
I’ve just jumped off the last bus I will ride on this voyage through Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia on my way to Italy. From here on it’s just me, my girlfriend Daniella and the road. We don’t have a phone, we don’t have a guide book, and really don’t have any idea what the hell we’re doing. But neither do the thousands of other European hitchers that will travel through the Balkans every summer. Eastern Europe, for budget travellers, is the place to be. And contrary to every travel horror film or nineteen eighties spy movie you’ve ever seen, Eastern Europe is not a dangerous place either.
We walk over the ancient bridge, thumbs extended, to a shady spot where we should have a good chance of getting a ride. Smiling and waving, we offer ourselves to the mercy of the road, hiding our giant backpacks behind a tree to appear like less of a burden. I even hide myself for a while in the trees while Daniella holds out a sign saying ‘Mostar’. Cars beep and drivers shrug but nobody really pays too much attention. After twenty minutes I start to second guess the decision and I feel like I’m already giving up on my transcendentalist notions. But then, in the distance, we see the ultimate hitch hiking friendly vehicle, a van made especially for hippies and vagabonds alike. A round of high fives is called for when we see the indicator flick on and the vehicle slow to a crawl.
The lime green 1980’s Volkswagon Caravelle rattles its way to the roadside and comes to a stop in front of us. A shaggy blonde head protrudes from the open window. “Aey guyz! Grab your bagz man! jump in ze back! We go to Mostar also!!” Riddled with excitement, we shoulder our bags and jump into the back to meet the rest of the Gang. The five Polish students, two girls and three guys, are on a day trip from Sarajevo and are heading to the various attractions surrounding Mostar. Once the initial excitement wore off, it only takes Daniella and I a moment to realise that we had been picked up by the real life Scooby Doo Gang, complete with a genuine Mystery Machine. I can’t believe my luck, and immediately begin scanning the car for a Great Dane with the ability to speak.
I don’t find Scooby Doo, but I do find groovy green apple-patterned curtains and a huge cardboard box filled with cassette tapes, which we proceed to listen to as we pass the spectacular scenery along highway seventeen. The Beatles’ 1964 classic Hard Day’s Night crackles through the Mystery Machine’s old speakers and we all hum along as the mountains creep overhead and we approach an area by the local name of Jablaničko jezero. Fed by the Neretva River, Jablaničko is a man-made lake created in the height of the socialist regime by an industrious Yugoslav government in 1953, after the construction of a mammoth hydroelectric dam. These days, it moonlights as a quaint holiday destination for Balkans and greater Europeans alike. They lounge in the lakeside cabins, fishing and skiing the glassy surface of the Jablaničko.
At the first opportunity Shaggy pulls the Mystery Machine into a rest bay, where we can fully appreciate the scenery from outside the van window. We climb out of the Volkswagen and stretch like cats in the sun, appreciating the mountainous scenery that is so precipitous and lofty that it seems just a stone’s throw away. The peaks appear to dance up and down the sky almost theatrically, and I begin to understand why they have earned the nickname “The Bosnian Himalayas.” Although they are all below the height of 2500 metres and are rarely skiable out of December to May, the mountains are a playground of infinite adventure, with hiking, cycling, and climbing to indulge in all year round. There are isolated highland villages which are for the colder months only accessable to skiers, but unfortunately, as I am reminded as I return to my back seat, it’s out of this adventurer’s budget.
We soon leave Jablaničko and head south along highway seventeen, and in less than an hour we’ve bypassed our goal of Mostar completely. The Polish crime solving gang insists that we tag along on their sightseeing, (code for investigation I assume), mission to some of the attractions around Mostar before dropping us off in the centre. It is from this experience that I learn the first and most important lesson of hitch hiking; Forget about where you would like to go and just go where the nice people take you.
So rather than Mostar, the road takes us to the small village of Blagaj. Meaning mild in Bosnian, I assume there isn’t anything terribly important to see, but I am swiftly proven wrong. The town is home to what UNESCO describes as a “natural and architectural ensemble” named Blagaj Tekke. It is a unique example of how history can become seamlessly inseparable from nature. Built around one of the largest karstic springs in Europe, Blagaj Tekke is a sixteenth century monastery which is tucked precariously between a steep cliff and a labyrinth of underground limestone caves. The icy waters that are released from the womb of the mountain are turquoise and translucent, designing a picturesque foreground to the monastery.
We walk past the diverted streams that were once used to power the the mills of the town. We navigate the pathways through the tourist traps and even a restaurant which is built upon the river. I take a dip in the freezing cold water, swimming around the entrance of the cave, and even attempt to catch fish with my hands as they circle carelessly around me. A guide with a torch and an inflatable raft takes tourists on a brief adventure into the mouth of the cave. I over hear him say that the cave releases over thirty cubic metres of water per second, and that the water is of the purest and cleanest drinking water available. I take a sample to verify his claims. He doesn’t appear to be lying, it’s tastes better than any bottled water I’ve ever tasted. After warming my bones in the sun beside the monastery, I follow the gang back to the Mystery Machine and we’re whisked away to our next destination.
On a secondary road we head south, away from the green rolling hills and peaks of The Bosnian Himalayas and into a barren world, far different from the Bosnia I had experienced so far. The Volkswagen clatters along a dusty road through a desert-like landscape and the temperature feels like it’s creeping above 35 degrees. The occasional tree stands stoic, yet abandoned amongst the lesser flora, made up of desert shrubs and various types of hazardous looking cacti. Amidst the desert we leave the dusty trail and roll onto the slick tarmac in the Bosnian Christian stronghold of Medjugorje. Once a tranquil and insignificant town, it became an overnight attraction for the Christian faithful in 1981, when a young woman believed she saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary on a rocky outcrop nearby the town. From this day on, the religious pandemonium ensued.
Although neither I, nor any member of the Scooby Doo Gang were particularly religious, we decided it would be a hoot to meet the Virgin Mary if she happened to swing past again. Not to mention the fact that pilgrimage towns are always fascinating places to visit. Predictably, what we find when we arrive in the centre of Medjugorje is nothing short of religious retail mayhem. The main street consists solely of souvennir shops venturing to make a profit off the predominantly Italian pilgrims. A coach with the face of Mary decorated on the side rolls into town and an abuncdance of Italian Nonnas begin to devour post cards, fridge magnets, rosary beads, key rings and other trinkets adorned with the face of the Virign Mary. One store even sells life sized statues of Jesus, The Virgin Mary and full sized crucifixes. We wander the town in sheer bewilderment, and pay a visit to the pristine whitewashed Catholic Church in the centre of town together with coachloads of pilgrims.
Once free from the chaos of downtown Medjugorje, we head to the outskirts of town to the modest hilltop where the apparition once appeared. Far from the sleek pathway I expect to find on the way to the mountain, the walk turns out to be an extended hike over uneven and rocky terrain in the afternoon heat. I guess pilgrimages aren’t meant to be easy. Passing large groups of Italian faithfuls who mutter prayers to themselves and sang songs as they climebd the hilltop, we arrive to find that the Virgin Mary had sadly, not dropped by. While the Scooby Doo Gang presumably searched for clues to unravel a hoax, I circle the area where the vision had appeared and watch the pilgrims huff and puff their way to the summit and drop to the ground in awe of the statue. It had been a long day for everyone involved, and the sun begins to set as we walk down from the apparition site and climb back into the Mystery Machine for our final journey to Mostar.
The Volkswagen slowly descends the auburn rocky hills south of Mostar, past another the giant crucifix and into the maze of ancient Ottoman streets below. In typical Mostar fashion, the night air is filled with the scent of four hundred years of culinary and ethnic diversity. The Mystery Machine labours into the centre of town near the famous Stari Most, and we bid farewell to our crime solving friends and thank them tremendously for what has been both an extremely amicable gesture and a memorable day on the road together. We wandered through the centre and consider sleeping under the bridge with the rest of the drifters, but eventually figure we earned the reward of an affordable hotel. Later that night, our last in Bosnia, we trawl the streets for the cheapest Burek and beer while the markets buzz with life in every direction. Out of earshot, past the festivites of Ramadan and the rising arch of the Stari Most, a long stretch of highway is calling for me to wander beside it once again. I can hear the sounds of freedom and endless possibilities beckoning, but they will have to wait until I finsih my Burek and get a well earned night’s sleep.
What the Hell is Burek? find out here, you won’t regret it: http://www.burek.net.au/
When to go: The Balkan states, including Bosnia and Herzegovina are best visited in their summer months and shoulder season (May-Sept) before strong trade winds sweep along the Adriatic coast in October. Winter can be brutal in Bosnia with temperatures in Sarajevo regularly dropping well below freezing.
written by: before.youre.too.old
visit his blog at beforeyouretooold.wordpress.com