Tuesday, September 25, 2007

History repeating

Maribor, Slovenia

Apologies for the slothful posting of late. I am still on the continent, but flying home this afternoon. I could of course wait until then to blog, but I have a to-do list as long as my arm before starting my MSc next Monday and hopefully moving to London around the same time!

Since the last post I've been to Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina (never heard of it? Not surprising - it's an autonomous republic within Serbia) for a day trip which gave an impression of what life in non-capital cities in the Balkans is like. The day after, I left Belgrade on the bus to Sarajevo in Bosnia. Both of these trips reinforced my frustration with public transport in eastern Europe: timetables are usually a work of fiction - as are the price lists - and the most surly employees are deployed to the ticket desks in order to baffle non-Slav speakers as much as possible. I don't by any means expect everyone to speak English, but in order to communicate a bit of facial expression, body language or even plain pen-and-paper go a long way to making sense!

Anyway. Travelling through Bosnia was an eye-opening experience. Even on the bus journey through the countryside the destruction of the country was apparent with many houses in ruins, or being reconstructed from bare breezeblocks. Litter carpeted the sides of the road, but I guess there are more important things to worry about: such as the thousands of landmines still carpeting the countryside and maiming civilians 15 years after the war.

As the bus came over the hill into Sarajevo hundreds of slender minarets showed up against the sky. Signs welcoming visitors to the 1984 Olympics were still erected on some major roads. And ruined buildings showed up every few blocks. This was going to be something new.

I hadn't booked anywhere to stay so hunted out the tourist information office, who suggested I stay in a 3* hotel for 15 euros a night! I've paid more for hostel beds so decided to give it a go. Although the location wasn't great, having my own double bed, ensuite bathroom and satellite TV - as well as free breakfast - was a pretty sweet deal.

Sarajevo has hundreds of cafes providing espresso for 1KM (that's konvertible mark, not kilometre) and an old town built by the Ottomans, who made European inroads this far in the 16th century. As well as the old mosques, there are metalworking shops and streets of one-storey buildings with tiled roofs, in contrast to the Austrian architecture in the rest of the city.

On Saturday I took a daytrip to the city of Mostar in the south of Bosnia. This city suffered terribly in the war and has not recovered yet by any means. The symbolic bridge was rebuilt a few years ago after being shelled and destroyed by the Serbs, but much of the city still lies in ruins. It was surprising (and depressing) how quickly I got used to seeing hollow shells with blown out windows and crumbling masonry in Bosnia. I suppose that travelling around most of Europe 50 years ago would have been similar. Sarajevo's history museum gives a chilling account of what happened 1992-95 when the city was under siege. For over a year the only communication with the outside world was one satellite phone in the governer's office. Over 1500 children were killed by snipers, mortars and landmines during the war, and much of the housing and food stock was rendered useless. Nothing like a spot of nationalism, is there?

Yesterday I jumped on the train to Zagreb, and a mere 9.5 hours later arrived in the Croatian capital after a rather unhurried journey. I found a hostel near the station and stayed there for about 10 hours, before getting the 07:25 to Maribor here in Slovenia, where I have 2 hours (well, 30 minutes now) until catching the bus to the airport and flying home. I should get back to Reading by 7pm where some good food, a hot shower and my own bed will be found. This trip has been a lot of fun, if frustrating at times (travelling isn't all sunshine and lollipops, although I guess it beats being at work) and I've just begun to start understanding some of the history, politics and geography of a very influential part of Europe. But the summer is over, the trees are turning autumnal and real life has to resume. Hvala i ciao!

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