30 July 2012

The Most Bosnian Town

If one place could claim to really encapsulate this country's identity, spirit and history, it's Jajce.  And to most people, Jajce is this view.  Looking at it reminded me a little of tourist t-shirts that show an artistic rendering of all the key sites in a country.  A composite that could place the Empire State Building side by side with the Statue of Liberty, whose making eyes at the guys of Mount Rushmore from behind the Golden Gate Bridge.  It's like a celebratory diorama.  Bosnia and Herzegovina = water! forests! castles! Medieval churches! Ottoman mosques! the prettiest hillside houses you've ever seen! They're all right there, piled above the town's very own set of waterfalls.  It would be almost twee if it weren't Bosnia.
As a taxi driver told us on our third day in the country, "We have a war every fifty years.  It's tradition!" While that's not precisely true, it's pretty close and Jajce has characteristically played a significant part in each.  Piled up behind and cascading down around the beloved waterfalls that have witnessed it all are reminders of all different chapters.  The 13th century fortress crowns the town, apropos of its status as capital and royal residence of the Bosnian kingdom beginning in the 1420s.  St. Luke's Tower, illuminated on the left side of the skyline, harkens back to this time.  It's the only in tact Medieval Tower on the Balkan Peninsula and was the location of the coronation of the last Bosnian king.  It has been idiosyncratically attached to the side of a mosque since the 1520s, when Ottomans destroyed the church but knew that the historic tower was worth saving.
Across from St. Luke's sits the entrance to the royal catacombs.  It's an underground church, complete with nave, altar and the now-emptied tombs of noblemen, built in the 15th century in just about the final years of the Bosnian kingdom.  The Ottoman Empire was swooping in and the Austro-Hungarian Empire grabbed a hold of Jajce and successfully protected it for around 60 years.  Then, in 1527, Jajce was the very last town in all of Bosnia to fall to the Ottomans.  Like everywhere else, this rule lasted about five centuries - at the end of which, Jajce became Austro-Hungarian once more. Unlike many other places, though, both sides cherished this town.  It never fell into neglect, was not ignored or forgotten.  It retained some of its former-capital luster and in the years before World War I it was treated to an  updated road system and modern infrastructure in the surrounding region. 
The next chapter of Bosnia and Herzegovina's life came, of course, with another war.  It was the big war - and the big turning point.  And, of course, Jajce was right there at the center of it.  In 1943, during World War II, the Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) met and drew up the documents that would outline the new state of Yugoslavia.  Tito's Yugoslavia.   A museum has been created where this took place, but we found out about it after closing hours.  Instead, we visited the small, but bright Ethnographic Museum.  A television set up amongst costumes and ancient pottery showed a video about wedding rituals.  Three vignettes played on loop, about Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox rituals, respectively.
At ANVOJ, Bosnia and Herzegovina proclaimed itself "neither Serbian nor Croatian nor Muslim, but rather Serbian Croatian and Muslim" and guaranteed brotherhood, freedom and equality for all three people.  In the next fifty years, Jajce's population reflected this sentiment, just as its steepled and minaretted skyline does.  Of course, the war challenged this very principle and Jajce was placed in its familiar wartime spotlight once more.   Jajce changed hands many times and was bombarded by every side.  The town's Serbian population fled, as did the Bosnian Muslims, neither group returned to the town in anything near their pre-war numbers. This young boy waved a Croatian flag as part of a long, honking wedding caravan.  Each vehicle has at least one flag bearer, some hung full sized versions over the back window.  This sort of nationalistic pride, which we've seen throughout the country (Banja Luka was covered in Serbian flags)  is worrisome to some in Jajce.  It's uncharacteristic of this town, a symptom of post-war divisions that aren't entirely mended yet.
"All war is stupid," that taxi driver had continued on.  "But ours was the stupidest."  The constant witness, Jajce's waterfalls, would undoubtedly agree.  At some point during the fighting, a hydroelectric power plant up the river was attacked, which caused some major flooding.  The falls were cut down by about a third of their size.  Once 30 meters tall, they are now around 21.  How sadly symbolic that the icon of this most Bosnian citizen, that had survived untouched through all that preceded, was truly hurt by the tragedy of its own people fighting each other.  Still, it gushes and it is beautiful.  It is visited by its fellow residents of Jajce every day.  The town has a unique energy to it.  After dark, the cafes overflow, though you won't necessarily hear bursts of laughter.  The constant rush of water in the background goes with it so well. Maybe that's chicken and egg, though.
Since the conflict, international organizations have been helping to fund the restoration and renovation of Jajce's historic monuments.  There are 24 protected national monuments in what's not a very large place.  Above, the Esma Sultana Mosque sits (newly) pretty.  This was once the most important mosque in the region but was destroyed - along with the town's Serbian Orthodox Church - during the war in the 90s.  It's exterior has been redone, but the inside is still a work in progress.  The first historic buildings to be worked on, of course, were those that make up that iconic waterfall panorama.  That view is an icon, the "Mostar's Old Bridge" of Northwest Bosnia.  To leave it in shambles would have felt too sad.
You don't get the sense that people see themselves as living in what could really become a museum town.  Excavations don't take place here, even though accidental findings date back to Aneolithic times.  The breakfast room of our hotel has a glass floor, beneath which are Roman ruins found during construction.  Luckily, they didn't just cement over them. But one gets the feeling someone else may have.  "The owner is Swiss," we were told by someone not associated with the hotel.  As if that explained the very logical, thoughtful decision to keep the findings exposed to the public. Even the Mithras Temple, the most ancient jewel in Jajce's sightseeing crown, was discovered by accident during construction.  It was found underground, hidden like all temples to this god are.
Now, it is in pieces, above ground, in a green tinted glass box by a condominium behind a Maxi supermarket.  It's obviously in the process of being fixed up, completely moved from its original home to help stop the effects of moisture damage.  A sign gives the estimated date of restoration completion as April of last year.  Like a lot of things, this is probably a combination of a lack of funds and interest.  Maybe Jajce just doesn't know what to do with their history anymore.  Looking back at all of their amazing town's past may feel impossible without also seeing the events that took place between then and now.  It is easier to look forward, to stroll by the waterfall and look out toward the future while the rest of us are taking little tours of their past.

29 July 2012

The Frontier: Bosnian Krajina

We came up to the Krajina trying to get out into the wilderness, lured by stories of river rafting and ancient castles.  We found the edge of Bosnia, where the country long ago mixed and bled into the world outside.
A frontier is both one thing and another.  The very meaning of the word suggests two sides, where something comes up against the unknown, or the other.  The Bosanska Krajina - or "Bosnian Frontier" - is a place where war has always been close at hand, where the people are quiet and tough, where minarets rise beside cornfields and river trout jump at flies.  This is the most beautiful and wild corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina, pushed up into the sickle of Croatia and overflowing with rivers and pretty towns.
In Banja Luka, government buildings still fly the Serbian war flag. In the northern plains and forests, Muslim farmers and loggers make up the vast majority. In 1992, the Bosanska Krajina was swept over by fighting. A quick and ugly front sprang up between towns and ruined any chance for camaraderie in the future.  The combatants - Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks - have mostly withdrawn to their own corners, creating homogenous enclaves where once there were ethnic mixes. Wounds are licked.  Life goes on.
An old name for the Krajina was the "Ljuta Krajina," or the "angry frontier."  It's been at the heart of almost every conflict fought in this part of the world: the fault line between Roman Dalmatia and the invading slavs, the grating edge between Austro-Hungaria and the Ottomans, the headquarters of the Yugoslav partisans during WWII, the bloody site of Serb concentration camps during the conflict of the nineties. War is ingrained in the landscape.
On the other hand, the area is also very peaceful, even bucolic.  Farmland abuts pine forests, there are countless woodland springs and the soft, low mountains have a sentimental resemblance to old-europe or New England.  If the people are reserved, they're also determined and hard working. Towns like Bihac, Jajce and Cazin fill up in the evening with men in from the fields and woods. Tan, broad shouldered youths drink beer in workboots and jeans, a scene that would be familiar in Oklahoma or the Hungarian Puszta.  Tractors rumble through the streets, lamb grills on roadside spits, the food is a hearty mix of grilled meats and potatoes - with some river fish mixed in.
In the dyer valleys between rivers, the land is more yellow hued and open.  To the north of Bosanki Petrovac, we drove through a long expanse of fields.  There were a few houses, but mostly they lay in ruins, shelled during the war.  Much of the land was fallow.  Shepherds huts and carts had replaced the old farms, perched high on the valleysides.  In the intense light of noon, they were like faraway glimpses of the past.  Flocks of sheep moved as one thing, spreading and contracting on the grass.  It was an empty place, where the driving was fast and straight and there were few other cars.
Several thousand Bosniaks were imprisoned, tortured and raped at the Serbian Omarska concentration camp, near the town of Prijedor.  One of the most publicized and awful outrages of the Bosnian war, Omarska was officially referred to as an "investigation center" by the Serbs who had taken control of the region - in truth, between four and five thousand people were shot, beaten or starved to death at the camp before it was shut down.  Mass graves have only partly been exhumed, the Mittal Steel company resumed operations at the town mine after the war and hasn't allowed much investigation.
Cazin, not far away from Omarska, up at the very point of the frontier, came to life in the evenings after the daily Ramazan fasting.  We ate dinner at Papillon restaurant, which served proudly national food.  A man popped in and out of the kitchen with plates and bags of cevapi. Only one other man ate in the restaurant, but there were plenty of other people waiting to bring food home.  We have stopped trying, in this land, to reconcile normalcy with horror.
This was once one of the most ethnically and religiously mixed regions of Yugoslavia, with Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs living together somewhat peaceably.  When this was the end-point of the Ottoman Empire, the government encouraged Muslim farmers and Bosniak families to move here and create a kind of buffer against the Hungarian and Austrian lands beyond.  Later, in the 18th century, Serb herders and mercenaries came to graze sheep and fight against the northern neighbors.  The boundary changed often, allegiances broke generally along religious lines, the Krajina's culture changed much less than its boundaries.
Joseph Broz Tito, the daring young Partisan leader (and later ruler of Yugoslavia) hid his base in a cave near Dvar, in the thick of the Krajina's mountains.  Thousands of German paratroopers failed to capture him there in the embarrassingly unsuccessful Operation Rösselsprung - his escape and the Yugoslav victory helped create a legend after Tito returned.
In truth, our experience in the frontier has had little to do with bloodshed.  We've traveled here like drivers across the American west, covering large distances and letting a larger ambience sink in.  Between busy towns, there are stretches of light and shadow as the trees and plains pass and the sun rises or sinks.  We've come by lakes near Jajce, followed river canyons around Bihac, climbed winding passes through the firs.  The towns, when they appear, are pass-throughs, with sunny-walls and self-contained cultures - a whirl of gossip, wedding halls, rusty trucks and the smell of meat.  Sometimes we stop, sometimes we don't.  In Bosanski Petrovac, we parked our car at the bus station - a place even more transient, where ancient-caravan buses creaked and puttered in from the lands around.  We ate lunch at "Florida Restaurant," where the sign was very faded but the trout was perfectly fresh and tender.
As we licked ice cream in the old castle of Bosanska Krupa, looking down on the Una river, we felt satisfied that we'd made it far enough.  We had a pleasant time doing it, too.  The Bosanska Krajina is a beautiful place to come to grips with history and culture.
For us, this is also the frontier of our journey - the last push into the hinterlands of the Balkans, of southern Europe, middle Europe, wherever it is that we are.  In a few days, we'll be ensconced in Sarajevo, then headed home, then on our last leg - Scandinavia, the British Isles, places that feel especially far removed from heat and confusion, tiny cultures, bombed buildings and Turkish coffee.  We'll leave behind a tangle of roads traveled and looped, borders crossed, towns with impossible names.  This is the last foray into this particular wilderness, and, standing in the breeze atop the castle, we began to sense the end.  Fitting, probably, that this historical middle ground felt like a perfect place to finish the chapter.

27 July 2012

Una, The One and Only

Like everything else in the Balkans, the Una river's name has a legend behind it - this one from Roman Times.  "The one and only," a foot soldier declared when spotting the river. He had never seen anything quite like it.  Even though there are 7 major rivers in Bosnia and Herzegovina and around 28 smaller ones, the Una is widely considered unique, a treasure, almost mythic. They say that it's a place of meditation and enlightenment.  We met it at the very end of the second rainstorm in two days. We'd just been thinking that the sudden, intense showers had made us feel our first real sense of "summer." Standing at the side of the Una, we had a realization, because I guess that's just what happens on this river. What had given us that familiar feeling of summer was all the green. The Northeast corner of Bosnia is a constant landscape of lush fields, and after weeks of Mediterranean climate, it felt familiar. It felt like summers throughout our lives.  And there it was, the Una River showing its powers of enlightenment right off the bat.
For most of its 132 mile length, the Una is surrounded by gorgeous, untouched nature.  It's as if people have known that if an eyesore was built by the Una's side, she'll punish them by reflecting their mistake back clearly and brightly.  The water is remarkably glassy, its reflections are a stunning study in symmetry above and below the horizon line.  It's also so so blue that when a duck glides over its surface, it's as if its tail is pulling down a zipper sewn into blue satin.  Down at the very bottom, the riverbed is smooth limestone.  Shelves of it can be seen raised up above the water in some spots, giving the river a unique and intriguing look.  It feels more like a mountain river than a valley river.  The dense forest rising up on each side, painted in the river's reflection, only adds to that feeling.  It is truly beguiling.
Fish can be seen darting around in such abundance that you feel like you could just throw a net or even a hand in and come up with a shiny, slinky fellow.  If it were only that easy.  This fishing house, set up on stilts, stands behind a roadside restaurant named "Stari Mlini," (Old Mill).  The restaurant's building, much newer, also stands in the river on stilts, between which mill wheels turn.  We'd gotten out of the car to look at it and were then distracted by wildflowers and these amazing blue dragonflies with velvety indigo wings.  Beyond them, we spotted the wooden relic out there alone.  The green river grasses have grown up at the same rate as the structure has broken down.  Even a river can sit still for a moment, this scene communicated to me.  My own little lesson from the Una, from which Bosniaks have been drawing inspiration and wisdom for centuries.
Young couples sit on the banks, staring in to see how good they look together.  Maybe they drop a pebble in to distort the reflection, so the rings of their two faces move in toward one another.  To see what their children would look like.  This young boy came to shore in his skiff, using a thick stick as a paddle.  His two friends stood on a bridge above him, poking fun at his makeshift oar.  This isn't to say that the locals' relationship with the Una is purely serene, contemplative, laid-back.  Rafting is exceedingly popular and big, heavylooking rafts were strung upside-down to the tops of vans that past by.  We saw one red tray carrying a sixpack of yellow helmets cruise by, but were a few days too late for the big spectacle that is the annual Una Regatta. 
Thousands of participants from here and abroad take to the water in rafts, canoes and kayaks, conquering the many waterfalls along the Una's course. It is a non-competitive "race" that takes 3-5 days. It's a celebration of the river, a bowing down to its powers and probably just a really great time. We went to Bihać to inquire about the event, and were welcomed by a sign that read "Bihać: A City in Love with the River."  There would be no point in specifying which one.  The river is the Una, here and throughout Northeast Bosnia and Herzegovina.  She loves this country as much as it loves her - which can only be assumed by the way she keeps bending toward it.  For most of the Una's length, the river runs right along the border of Croatia and Bosnia.  At three different points, though, it deviates from this clear path and curves in to the nation that adores it so much.  Bihać is situated at one of these points, a very pleasant, small city/large town with short, simple bridges arching over the river and picnic tables, parks and cafes edged up to the waterside.
Many say that the people of Bihać are the most ecologically minded Bosniaks in the country.  So, they don't just profess their love of the river, they really let it guide their decisions.  Which is wonderful.  Unlike other beautiful bodies of water we've visited recently, the underwater inhabitants of the Una are not currently at a risk of endangerment.  While fly-fishing is a popular recreational activity and fishing is touted as a unique tourist experience, the licensing system is responsible.  Unska pastrmka (Una river trout) are widely available on riverside menus, but larger species like carp and the prized grayling are left more to the fishermen themselves. Let them eat carp!  I'm happy with pastrmka. The trout of the Una happen to be uniformly plump, pink-fleshed and delicately flavored.  Trout is something that carries a huge dose of terroir and you can taste the purity of the Una.  No muddiness or earthiness, these trout taste like crystal blue water.
In Bosanska Krupa, we came across the young boy pictured earlier while walking across a wood-planked bridge, trying to get a nice photo of the three yellow, red-roofed houses set on stilts above mills.  Their placement is at the end of a mini peninsula, their surrounds are wholly water.  Across the way, a castle sits atop a hill.  Old guns, painted blue, point down directly at the quaint trio, an unfortunate coincidence.  On the other side of the hill is an amazing sight. A mosque, a Catholic church and an Orthodox church stand literally side by side, or at least across the street from one another.  Following the waters for a few days, visiting it at one spot or another, letting it speak to me like the locals told me to, I really felt that the wide expanse of the river right at this point had to do with that successful coexistence.   There's just something very magical about the Una. 

Castle Hunting: Ostrožac

Ostrožac castle's been used recently.  That much is clear from the bullet holes in the plaster, the burnt window frames, the shelling holes punched in the walls.  It's not often that one comes across a castle that hasn't outlived its purpose.
The surrounding fields are bucolic enough, like many green pastures around many old fortresses.  There is an abandoned bar on the road below the castle, an old sign on the roof is painted luridly with women in lingerie.  A man chopped wood nearby, his young children kicked a soccer ball.  It made us think, in some ways, about the periods of peace and warfare that every castle went through.  In so much of Europe, that peace has extended now into a kind of permanence that belies millennia of turbulence.  Here in Bosnia, the very quiet - an evening calm, with soft light and chirping insects - seemed to clang against recent violence.
Perched at the edge of a shelf-like plateau, overlooking the pine trees and steep slopes of the Una River valley, Ostrožac is a long, low-walled fortress with two distinct ends and a few intermediary towers on the less steep side.  The gatehouse and keep are fairly standard, with thick-built, mid-medieval style defenses and little nuance.  These are classic designs, much used.  This part is mostly ruined but - as is the way of dense stone - it has held its basic shape and not crumbled much.      This is a rocky, remote corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina, nearby to the provincial town of Cazin, but not to much else.
The first surprise is the sculpture garden in the grounds.  There are some two dozen (maybe more) large carvings, all probably done by one artist who liked to experiment with styles.  Some of the pieces are better than others, none have any information by them, none of it seems to be maintained.  In fact, the whole castle is wild feeling and, in all practical terms, unattended - though the grass had been cut sometime recently.
It's always a thrill to feel as though you have the run of the place, and never more so than when there are obvious dangers.  In some castles, everything is fenced-off or protected by guardrails.  Even the most solidly built ramparts are usually off limits, to say nothing of already caved-in floors and rooms with collapsed walls.
At Ostrožac, we were free to wander everywhere - on the narrow battlements, on the very tops of the walls, into the unmarked bowels of the keep.  We clambered and climbed and pleaded with one another to be careful.  It's not for the faint of heart, but the views and experience are both worth the danger.
Sometimes, we find castles like this.  But nothing we've visited has been like the residence part of Ostrožac.
On the far end of the compound, in the most protected and steepest-sided part of the walls, the later Austro-Hungarian owners of the castle built a small, ornate residence during the last throws of their conflict with the Ottomans.  It's a place built more for show than defense, with fanciful turrets and intricate moldings.
There isn't much grandeur left.  This probably wasn't the hardest hit section of the complex during the most recent conflict, but the lighter-weight construction didn't hold up well against bombardment.  The walls were better for graffiti, the floors easily rotted, glass windows broke.  The centuries have treated the stone walls outside better, the old keep still holds its squat shape - this newer part looks like it has been part of a war.  One can still see the remnants of the older walls where the newer material has fallen away, the original framework of the building set in stone.
We explored this waste of cave-ins and scrawl for a while, putting our feet down carefully and counting bulletholes (too many to count, really).  It still seemed surprising that we were even allowed into this part of the castle.  From outside, it looks normal enough - though some of the turrets do lilt and the rooflines aren't all plumb.
It's almost impossible to tell exactly what kind of fighting went on here, but that's nothing unusual - the marks of war are just more recent than in other castles, but the stories are similarly cloudy.  The 1990's were a while ago now, most people here don't like to recount what happened or where.
The castle's earliest form dates to the thirteenth century, but its present shape was mainly formed in the sixteenth century, as the Ottomans were trying to shore up the northwestern reaches of their empire.  They picked a solid bit of slope where the land rose and flattened.  The rise of land that the walls fortify is most easily accessed at only one point, and this is where the original fortifications were built up the strongest.  There are rounded walls enclosing thick inner tower structures.  A long, stone ramp - presumably for cannons to be hauled in - was attached at some point, but doesn't look original.  There were remains of several bonfires inside, and lots of broken glass.  The rough, surviving chambers were in surprisingly good shape.
Later, the Austro-Hungarians took Ostrožac and saw something of a frontier post in it.  At the time, mountain fortresses had mostly been made moot by heavy weaponry, but the symbolism was still important.  The act of restoration - putting their architectural claim on an enemy's castle - was probably done as much to impress the locals as fend off gunmen from Ankara.  In fact, the initial thrust of Austro-Hungarian ownership here came about by semi-forcible annexation, not by direct military action.  The Bosnian "acquisition" was one of the pre-cursors of the first world war, though it occurred in 1878.  At the time, the Ottoman empire was reeling from an extended conflict with Russia, and had little chance to defend itself from the takeover - because the new Habsburg owners of Ostrožac hadn't won it by force, they may have felt that renovations were especially needed to set themselves apart from the previous owners.
Ostrožac is a great castle to visit, perhaps the most whole and impressive in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It's remote, of course, in a far-flung part of the country that is deeply cut by river gorges; the going is slow around here, the roads twist and follow old topographical curves.  But, to find this castle in the pine forests and cornfields is to find a place that feels immediately powerful and multi-faceted.  The older walls are fun in themselves, the sculpture gardens add a bit of intrigue and interest, the marks of recent conflict make it unique.  The landscape is beautiful too, with little towns and minarets outlined in the distant hillsides and thick forests below.  We left feeling as though we'd explored something unlike anything else we'd seen - a place that felt as recently used as it did old and deserted, as though a wave of something ancient had just passed through before us.

25 July 2012

Mostar: The Most Bombed City

From across the Atlantic, the Yugoslavian breakup was a confusing mess of television images and magazine covers.  Stone houses, broken in the mist.  Winter landscapes, tanks and bulletholes, grim politicians, tired soldiers of undefined nationality - whole countries of undefined nationality.
Mostar became a symbol of the Bosnian War.  It was, by many accounts, the hardest hit and most bombarded city in Bosnia.  Mirroring the larger breakup, neighborhood fought neighborhood, snipers fired from building to building, Mostar became a jumble of ruined houses on two sides of a divisive river.  We in America were left with the enduring and emblematic image of an ancient bridge, connecting two cultures, being bombed and left in rubble.
Mostar is a city of tourists now.  Really.  Right here in Bosnia, at the epicenter of the fighting.  We've heard more American, German, Italian and French accents than one could believe.  And not even the typical 3rd world backpackers - young people trying to reach the edge of something - but couples in sun hats, pulling rollerbags.  There are families with preteens, retired couples, tour groups of people with cameras and safari vests.  These are tourist tourists, the type one expects to find in Nice or Berlin, people on summer vacation.
In 2004, before international TV crews and with much symbolism, the Old Bridge (called Stari Most) was officially re-opened after a lengthy rebuilding project.  The old town has been beautified again.  Restaurants are open along the streams. It's a perfect day trip from the overpacked Croatian coast, and Mostar deserves the visits because it's beautiful, safe and historic - at least, in the pretty part of town.
Coming into the old town, Rebecca said, was like finding the color insert in a guidebook.  Walking from the bus station through the heavily shelled outskirts feels like the gritty, black and white pages: history, culture, a brief detailing of current politics, hotels, local cafes.  There are children digging through dumpsters, desperate beggars, rusting cars.  Suddenly, there is color and beauty, traditional costumes, smiling waitresses, old houses and the bridge.
Stari Most (the name literally means "Old Bridge") was built in 1566 by the Ottoman emperor Sulieman the Magnificent.  It's an amazing structure, almost seventy feet high at midspan, but only a hundred feet long.  Climbing its slippery stones, the views are magnificent.  It was considered, once, one of the wonders of the Ottoman empire, a barely believable feat of engineering.  Around the old town, the scene is bleaker.
The bulletholes are still there, pockmarking otherwise normal walls.  There are broken windows too, of course, and broken steps and abandoned buildings, vacant floors strewn with trash.  We've seen this kind of thing before.  Sometimes it's even pointed out in guidebooks -  as in, "if you look closely, there are some signs that there was a war here!"  In Mostar, you don't have to look closely.  Buildings here gape open to the sky, knocked in, reduced to a wall or two.
On this trip, we've been to countless places destroyed by bombing and war - from Vienna to Berlin, Rotterdam to St. Petersburg.  It's a tough concept to grapple with, as an American, without the history that Europe has.  On this continent, if something was shelled sixty years ago, it counts as ancient history.  There are much more recent conflict zones - Georgia, Kosovo, Croatia, Albania, Azerbaijan and, of course, Bosnia.  The thing is, in most of these places, things have been spruced up again.  We've seen it for ourselves.  People will say things like, "it was right over there," or "this whole building was gone."   But the holes have been plastered over, the facades mended, stores rebuilt, new houses have gone up.  Bosnia hasn't been as lucky.
We watched this group of young men fishing for scrap metal in the river.  They used a heavy hook, cable and hand winch, dislodging stubborn bits of what looked like a bed frame from the rocks. Not far from where the tourists ate their meals and licked their ice cream cones, things haven't improved that much.
Even though people visit Mostar these days, a little tourism can only be counted as a small victory.  Bosnia's national economy is still in shambles, the war crimes are still being sorted out.  And, though they come, most of the tourists don't even stay the night.
The most common sign you'll see in Mostar reads "Attention! Dangerous ruin - access to the ruin and parking forbidden!"  There are scores of buildings like this, their doors blocked with wire fence, their windows boarded over, flattened walls fenced off.  Really, there isn't much evidence that anyone disobeys the signs.  There's no good reason to enter, there are more than enough places to live - almost half the population (nearly two million people) were displaced during and after the conflict.  Many of them have never come back.  Lots of buildings weren't bombed, but still sit abandoned and empty.
Near two huge cemeteries, we passed garages full of rusting machinery, fenced away, wires and hoses drooping.
Several times a day, men jump from the top of the Old Bridge for tourist coins.  It's a frightening drop, but the main warning against attempting it is that the water is too cold, which seems laughable.  Tourists line the top with cameras and children, politely clapping.
The rebuilding of Stari Most was supposed to mirror the rebuilding of Bosnia and the relative peace that's settled in.  It makes for a pretty picture and a feel-good story, a vignette about the triumph of better blood in a broken place.  It's difficult to tell, right now, if it represents the truth or a mirage.

Gypsy Kitchens: Bosnian Bulgur Pilaf, Freshened Up a Bit

The original plan was to try our hands at traditional Bosnian Red Pilaf, a simple staple which can be served hot or cold. It is similar to Turkish bulgur pilavi, in that the main components are coarse bulgur, tomato and pepper.  What we liked about the Bosnian recipe is that fresh tomato was employed instead of tomato paste, and that onion, carrots and celery root were included. The tomatoes we purchased at the market in Mostar changed our plans a little.  When the first one we sliced open practically hemorrhaged juice, we had a pang of remorse about our intentions to heat them up and cook them down.   Sometimes, wonderful produce just begs you to eat it raw. This set into motion our freshened up version of bulgur pilaf, a play on the Bosnian classic that keeps things a little brighter and more summery.
Bulgur is a wonderful, high-protein whole grain with a nutty flavor and great texture.  It is quicker to cook than rice and healthier than couscous.  So, what's not to love?  The reason we chose bulgur instead of rice, which is also commonly used in Bosnian red pilaf, is the snappiness of the texture and the earthiness of the flavor really appeal to us.  It also does much better sitting in a fridge without drying out, which is essential when you're cooking for two but making enough for six.  We're not great at cooking in small amounts. When, at our very first meal out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, these cracked, parboiled and dried wheatberries made not one but two appearances  - beneath a hot starter of Šampinjoni na žaru (grilled mushrooms) and floating in a big bowl of paradajz čorba (tomato soup) - we knew we'd chosen the right grain.
What makes bulgur pilaf different than just cooked bulgur is that ingredients are sauteed right in the pot before the cooking liquid is added, which means that the grains wind up soaking up all of those great flavors. We softened diced onion, minced garlic and a healthy dose of red pepper flakes in oil to start.  When those were done, we added salt, sliced carrot and water and then upped the heat to bring to a rolling boil before throwing in our bulgur. Many people saute their grain for a minute before adding the liquid. It's a personal choice.   Pilaf is traditionally made with broth instead of water, but we wanted to keep our recipe vegetarian.  We also wanted to utilize Bosnia and Herzegovina's legendary water, which - when you really think about it - is just mountain broth.  Right?  Not using broth is probably blasphemous to pilaf purists, but we were happy with the amount of flavor in our sauteed ingredients.
This was our first time cooking bulgur ourselves and it was amazing to see the coarse flecks of wheat expand and fluff before our eyes.  We'd say it grows to at least twice maybe thrice its dry size when cooked.  Like couscous, it's pretty difficult to screw this grain up.  Just find what works for you and the particular brand of bulgur you've purchased.  Generally speaking, cooking bulgur entails a 2:1 liquid to grain ration and about 15 minutes of your time.   Some people cover, remove from heat and let sit for 20 minutes.  We left our pot uncovered and simmered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.   As long as the heat is low enough, there's no threat of burning. Just slide a wooden spoon down the side of your pot and push the grains away from the edge to check the amount of liquid left on the bottom.  Once there's none to be seen, you're all set.  To speed up the cooling process, we transferred our bulgur to a bowl right away.
Then, we prepped our raw ingredients.  Leaving the tomato uncooked gave us the idea to do the same with our celery root, that way we could utilize its crunch along with its flavor.  We've found that celeriac and celery are a little like Clark Kent and Superman.  We have yet to see them both sold in the same place.  In fact, we began buying celeriac when we discovered that celery stalks are almost impossible to find in Europe.  The reverse seems to be true in most supermarkets in the US.  In our time on this continent, we've come to love this knobby low-starch root vegetable, which has the same smooth flavor as celery, but a much longer shelf life.  Pushing our cold pilaf even closer to 'salad,' we chopped up loads of parsley and cubed some locally smoked cow cheese we had in the fridge.  The smokiness wound up being one of the things we loved most about our finished product.  A smoked gouda would do the trick or a smoked, firm tofu if you'd like to make the recipe vegan.
Sometimes it's difficult to know when to stop adding ingredients.  However, it's hard to argue with seeds and lemon juice.  We sprinkled roasted pumpkin seeds throughout while folding our ingredients into the bulgur, being especially careful not to wound the diced and seeded tomato too much.  Then, we squeezed half a lemon over the top and mixed once more.  We didn't wind up dressing with olive oil, though a drizzle on each plate before serving would work well.  Storing without added oil, as well as choosing to seed the tomato, really kept the pilaf fluffy and moist without putting it in danger of getting soggy.  This is a dish you can definitely prepare the night before or make a huge batch of on Sunday and enjoy throughout the week.
Bosnian Bulgur Pilaf, Freshened Up a Bit
(serves 2 as a main course or 4 - 6 as a side dish)
- 1 1/2 cups bulgur
- 3 cups water
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- 1 large carrot, halved and sliced
- 3/4 cup celeriac, match-sticked
- 1/2 lemon 
- 1/2 cup cubed smoked gouda (or smoked, firm tofu)
- 2 medium tomatoes, seeded and diced
- pumpkin seeds, hulled
- bunch of fresh flat parsley
- red chili flakes
- olive oil
- salt

- Heat olive oil in a medium pot.  Add onion and a healthy pinch of red chili flakes.
- Cook until softened and then add garlic.  Continue to cook until onion is browned.
- Add carrot and water.  Bring to a rolling boil.
- Pour in bulgur and mix.  Lower heat to a simmer.
- Simmer uncovered,  stirring occasionally,  for 10 minutes or until liquid is gone.  
-  Remove from heat and let sit for a few minutes.  Then, transfer to another container to speed up the cooling process.
- While grains cool, dice tomatoes, discarding the liquid and seeds.
- Skin and matchstick celeriac, chop parsley and cube cheese.
- Fold all ingredients into bulgur once it is no longer hot.  Salt.  Sprinkle liberally with pumpkin seeds and mix again.
- Dress with half a lemon and either serve or refrigerate.  This is a dish that can be made the night before if you'd like.
- Drizzle lightly with olive oil before serving (optional). 
Check out all of our recipes.

21 July 2012

Rooms With a View (and a Hotplate)

This was our living room for four nights.  That yellow block in the top left hand corner of the bookshelf is a collection of National Geographic magazines from the 70s and 80s.  "My grandfather ordered English versions in the mail!" Djeordj told us when we pointed them out.  "We cannot throw them away.  They are like memories!"  Djeordj (pronounced George) had an endearing way of sounding excited about everything.  Once he left, we fingered through the rest of the library: old VHS tapes, paperback romances in Serbian, a totally inspiring cookbook from which a recipe handwritten on a piece of paper fell when opened.  I was half-expecting there to be a yellowed wedding album tucked in somewhere.  Private accommodations are plentiful in Montenegro - we didn't stay in a single hotel in our entire two weeks.  Why would we with options like this? 
This rental, technically named Reževići Apartments, was found on booking.com.  The description said "One Bedroom w/ Balcony and Sea View" and photos of the interior won us over.  A "kitchen" had been listed, but photos only showed a white mini fridge anachronistically sitting in the living room.  Walking in, we saw it there.  No sink or stove to be found.  "Oh that!" Djeordj laughed.  "My mother says that we need two fridges.  I do not think so, but it is what my mother says, so."  With that, he brought us out to the balcony (our balcony) to solve the Mystery of the Missing Kitchen.  A sink, dual burner hotplate and second fridge were right there outside, coupled with our better-even-than-advertised sea view.  We fried fish in the sunset, made lime-basil potato salad and Njeguski fruit salad with salty skin and wet hair.
When we made the booking, we thought "Rijeka Reževići" was the name of a street in nearby (and much bigger) Petrovac.  It's actually a pretty little village - a clump of stone houses and lush oleanders high up above a beautiful, secluded rock cove.  A long staircase takes you down to the pocket of beach which - amazingly, has a great little restaurant tucked right into it.  Being on 'our cove,' as its been lovingly dubbed, it really hit us how important rentals in family homes are for Montenegro's future.  It's a way of utilizing the buildings that already exist to fit the 1 million tourists who flock here every summer (more than double the country's resident population).   It's tourism without development. Especially on the coast, this feels so important.  On each side of Rijeka Reževići,  to the left, right and across the road behind, there are big half finished complexes.  The coast no longer looks the way it may have in one of Djeordj's grandpa's National Geographics. 
Choosing rentals is also a way of putting money right into the pockets of Montenegrin families, who earn about 40% of the EU average, instead of the foreign investors that have built all the resorts.  Renting out rooms has become an industry of its own in Montenegro.  Anyone with a child off at college becomes an entrepreneur.  A lot of those children, like Djeordj, are the ones you post links on booking sites, get business cards made, speak English and handle communication with renters via cell phone and email.  Mostly, though, its an on-point sale. Woman wait at bus stations with photo albums filled with pictures of their offerings.  Signs are posted on doorways.  In Budva, along the main coastal road, a young man in short red swimming trunks and sunglasses sat in a lounge chair.  He was there every time we drove through with his "SOBE - APARTMANI" sign resting up against his steadily tanning ankle.  He looked like a strange cross between a lifeguard and a hitchhiker. 
Rentals are so numerous and actively promoted that when our host mother in Kolašin came out to wave us into her property, I was worried it was just someone else trying to get our business.  Turns out, we were in the right place.  And what a beautiful one.  Their high season is winter, its a ski town, but people like us also come to hike in nearby Biogradska Gora National Park.  To have a few days inland as respite from the coast.  "How much are they charging for an apartment in Budva?" asked the English-speaking niece of our host family.  She was just visiting for the weekend, fleeing the concrete heat of Podgorica for some crisp mountain air.  She was translating the question for her aunt.  We hadn't stayed in Budva, but reported that our little piece of cove heaven had cost nearly double her place.  Not all one bedroom with kitchens are created equal. 
This was just a simple bedroom with an adjacent kitchenette, all we needed for two nights in the mountains. And why would we complain about the less-than-inspiring kitchen after a warm welcome of rakija, strawberry cake and stove-top-popped popcorn.  And a goodbye made of berries, picked in the backyard by the visiting niece's two young children.  Renting private accommodations isn't just a budget option or responsible tourism, it can also feel like a homestay... with a little distance.  We love homestays.  Some of the best moments of this entire trip have been in places like dung-heated Xinaliq and the Arbajter's deer farm.  But sometimes, it's also nice just to have a little more privacy.  To be less doted upon.  To have a simpler breakfast.  Since every place we stayed had a minifridge and a hotplate, cereal and a can of instant coffee become Montenegrin additions to our backpacks.  Carrying them around reminded us of the good ole camping days of 2011.
Since rental rooms and apartments are available absolutely everywhere in Montenegro, you can drive around until you find somewhere that pulls at your heartstrings and then decide to spend a night or a week.  That's just what happened to us in Rose.  All by itself on the northwestern corner of the Lustica Peninsula, it sat simply and prettily.  We wanted nothing more than to stay the night and a "SOBE" sign posted on the door of Aragosta tavern gave us a glimmer of hope that it could be possible.  Sasha was called to help us when we inquired with the waiter and, sure enough, they had a room for one night.
Even in a room situated above a restaurant, we had a hotplate, fridge and sink.  We didn't use any of them.  We simply walked downstairs and sat at an outdoor table alongside the poor fools who actually had to go sleep somewhere else that night.  Shrimp buzarra with risotto, char-grilled octopus with blitva, a bottle of rosé, because it only seemed appropriate. It was a feast.   After our dinner, we changed back into swimsuits and dove in for a night swim.  Jellyfish, used to having the sea all to themselves under the moonlight, zapped at our legs.  We were too full and happy to care, the only people in the water - maybe even in the whole Mediterranean Sea at that very moment.  Probably not, but it's wonderful to think.
Rose is a special place.  So is Rijeka Reževići.  Both feel like discoveries and give you the sense that you have them all to yourself.  Being in a rental only adds to that feeling.  Coming home, unlocking your door, grabbing a cool beverage out of your own fridge.  Heck, being able to start a sentence with 'coming home' at all. After our late night swim, once we were all dried off and tucked in, we realized that for the first time in all our days on the coast, we could actually hear the water lapping up against the shore.  Rose may be the only place in Montenegro where this is possible - where you can sleep right on the edge of the water and it is quiet enough to hear the movement of the sea. And to think of how many people visit and just figure there is nowhere to sleep, not noticing the simple sign that reads "SOBE" or not knowing that that means "rooms." Exploring Montenegro just wouldn't be the same without them.