Balkan bridges and band-aid for our mutually bloody pasts

2013-09-12 15:14

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The flight from Prague had been 60 minutes of contraceptive. The plane was packed with wailing children and I secretly blessed my wonky biological clock.

There were no goats in the aisle (or chickens strapped to the roof), which is noteworthy as we were in the Balkans, and you never know.

We were busy landing when applause ripped through the plane: “Hvalaaa!!” People clapped wildly as the budget carrier bumped to a halt outside Split, Croatia’s second-largest city, to clusters of pine-cloaked islands along the sapphire Dalmatian coast.

I got a huge fright, but then joined in the racket (“Hvala, indeed!”) which I later learnt was habitual of this jovial nation.

I touched down in Croatia exactly a year ago today.

And tonight, sitting in front of my computer in my little flat with views of the sea and Table Mountain (well, from the neighbour’s roof, ascendable with considerable effort), I feel the urge to share.

Croatia had topped my list of must-see destinations for a while.

Travel arrangements were tricky, though, as there are few flights between South Africa and the Balkans – that boisterous, bullet-ridden peninsula wedged between Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

I don’t do travel agents or package deals. Half the fun of travelling is planning trips by myself, and not planning too much, of course.

It’s an amusing game of logistics, checks and balances – a bit like dominoes, but with very real consequences if you get it wrong. I’ve learnt the hard way.

In this case, the most practical route appeared to be return flights with Emirates to Prague, in the Czech Republic, just two countries removed from Croatia, a thousand kilometres to the north.

A Google search revealed Smart Wings, a Czech budget airline with a princely fleet of five Boeings – inherited from Slovakia’s defunct Tatra Airlines – offering a regular link between Bohemia and the sea-flanking Balkans.

I figured Smart Wings must be airworthy as they offered flights to Paris too, and we all know the French don’t take kindly to planes crashing in their capital.

I shut my eyes, mumbled some (ooooh f**k!) and bought a one-way ticket from Prague to Split on the threadbare Smart Wings website. The plan was to travel back to Prague by train via Slovenia and Austria.

Anyway, all due credit to Smart Wings for delivering my suitcase and me alive and well – and, like I said, there weren’t even goats in the aisle.

The plane actually had toilet paper in its tiny lavender-scented bathroom, which is more than anyone can say for poor old 1Time towards the bitter end. Shame, nê (RIP 1Time).

In Split, the old palace of some Roman emperor hunched over the harbour, as it has for the past 2 000 years.

I asked around until I found a minibus taxi to the city of Mostar, a few hundred kilometres across the border in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I couldn’t understand the driver, but earlier research had shown that the trip should take about three hours.

The Mostar detour was inevitable. I saw a picture of Mostar’s famous Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva River in a National Geographic magazine some years ago. I have a thing for bridges, and this one resonated particularly. I badly wanted to see it in the flesh, so to speak.

Our minivan crawled and dipped over hills, washed in sunlight, little farms curling up each slope. We stopped a few times at roadside stalls for ripe figs, tomatoes and grapes.

I gathered that my fellow passengers were mostly employed along Croatia’s lucrative coast, and were heading to their inland homes for a break.

At the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina, tall dark men with noses like beaks and beady eyes took our passports, glaring and barking in Foreign.

No particular arrangements were required to enter the country, or so I had been told.

The officials handed back all the passports except for mine, glaring and speaking in hushed tones. The sun was beginning to dip.

No one spoke English. They kept our little bus waiting for two hours, poring over my passport.

“Bloody arseholes,” I thought, smiling politely, very scared.

“South Africa is a country, you know! Madiba!” I wanted to scream. I guess they were too busy offing each other in the Bosnian War to pay attention to lessons in geography.

When we eventually arrived in Mostar, the city and its pale surrounding mountains were shrouded in dusk. Mostar was under siege for 18 months during the nearly four-year Bosnian War, which ended in 1995. It is still visibly shell-shocked and mending.

I strolled for kilometres along tiny streets towards the city’s historic Ottoman heart by the river, gesturing for directions to the Old Bridge.

My little suitcase bounced over cobblestones; my hands were blistered and beginning to bleed.

The city’s skyline contained the silhouettes of mosques and Orthodox Church steeples. Somewhere a church bell chimed the hour; children laughed and dogs barked.

Finally, the bridge appeared ahead, brazenly arched and bathed in green and red light. It was a female bridge for sure, all seduction and curves.

The 28-metre-long blonde stone structure turned 427 years old when Bosnian Croat forces destroyed her in 1993. Local newspapers wrote that 60 shells hit her before she groaned and collapsed.

That evening, a little wall lining the Neretva offered the perfect seat from where to sit and stare. Which I did, chin tucked on my knees.

Someone once said: “May the bridges you burn light the way.”

Some broken bridges warrant rebuilding, I guess. Unesco restored Stari Most in 2004, and a charming job they did too.

It was a hot, dry evening. I had a meal of tomato and kofta and found a place to sleep nearby.

I met a girl called Ivana who could speak English. She was beautiful, with sleek black hair and red bra straps hugging her tanned shoulders.

Ivana was just back from working as a “cooker” at a restaurant in Croatia’s tourist capital, Dubrovnik, to fund her studies in politics at a college in Mostar.

Between sips of beer, she said tension in her country was still rife. I assured her that things back in South Africa were complicated too.

All of this happened a year ago on September 11, a significant date to most.

Let’s not forget to remember.

The Balkans and their bloody past.

Stari Most over the Neretva River in Mostar is very important to Bosnia-Herzegovina's fledgling tourism industry.

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