27 July 2012

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.

2 comments:

  1. Okay, you seem to be completely ignorant of, or fail to address, that in this region there was an autonomous enclave of Muslims, under popular leader Fikret Abdic (who actually received more votes for president than Alija Izetbegovic before the war, but stepped aside in some kind of deal) - and that he and his followers were essentially allied with the Serbs in the region.

    He was opposed to the Sarajevo government and his enclave was attacked, overrun and defeated near the end of the war. These Muslims - 10s of thousands - fled into Croatia and were kept in camps with "chicken coop"-like conditions. Eventually most of them were settled in a different country.

    Here are some extracts of Justin Raimondo's summary on Fikret Abdic and what happened:

    http://www.antiwar.com/justin/j072001.html

    Abdic opposed the radical Islamic fundamentalism of Izetbegovic and proclaimed himself a follower of Western-style capitalism. In Balkan Odyssey, Lord Owen, the British diplomat, described him as "forthright, confident and different from the Sarajevan Muslims. He was in favor of negotiating and compromising with Croats and Serbs to achieve a settlement, and scathing about those Muslims who wanted to block any such settlement." As one Abdic supporter succinctly put it: "Alija Izetbegovic is the biggest Muslim fundamentalist. Fikret Abdic is the best economist and smartest man."...
    Always critical of the uncompromising position of Izetbegovic and his pro-Iranian fundamentalist party, the SDA, Abdic declared the Cazinska Krajina enclave an autonomous republic, and signed a separate peace with both the Serbs and the Croats...
    The Bosnian Army launched a deadly offensive against Abdic on June 10, 1994, and they were joined by their newfound allies, the Croats...
    Abdic and tens of thousands of his followers fled into neighboring Croatia, where many were crowded into refugee camps, as the Bosnian army reclaimed the enclave. Thousands were killed in the fighting, and, after the battle, Abdic's remaining supporters – those who did not flee – were subjected to systematic and cruel repression. (Abdic was himself the target of an Iranian-trained assassination squad organized by the Bosnian intelligence agency.)

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  2. Hello James,
    This is also very interesting. You seem to be taking a great deal of interest in our posts! Thanks for reading.
    I know that our (American) interpretation of things is always going to be very much different from that of the people who were involved in the conflict. I've also been very careful here to say that I don't know what, exactly, happened at Ostrozac. I haven't made any accusations about any of the different sides involved.

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