The dog on Hum Hill

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On our way down Hum Hill, we ran into a dog! He was super cute and very friendly. I pet him, of course.

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As we walked down, the dog came with us. Uh oh. At one point I walked him all the way back up to where we thought his car and owner would be, but no such luck. Doggo walked right back down with us.

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Now we were in a bit of a quandary. Doggo had clearly decided he would be following us, but he also clearly had a collar. We didn’t want to accidentally lead someone’s dog down the hill. It was getting cold so Natalie wrapped him in her jacket while we decided what to do. We checked for a dog rescue in Mostar – there was one! But we had no real way to contact them. We settled on the next best thing – flagging down cars to ask a local for help. Most passed right by us, but a few stopped.

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The general consensus seemed to be that sometimes – fairly often – people will leave their dog up on the hill when they don’t want it anymore. This seemed unbelievably cruel, so we asked about a shelter. This was admittedly naive but hey, the dog was quiet, apparently well behaved, and adorable. As we expected though, Bosnia is not at the stage of having animal shelters, and one of the people who helpfully stopped told us he calls the rescue people once in a while but they never seem to come. The thought on whether to bring him down into the city with us, or leave him on the mountain, was that in the city, he’d be competing with some very rough street dogs. Up here at least, even though it was cold, there would be less violence. Neither option seemed great to us, and it was pretty clear doggo would follow us right down the car-laden road.

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We finally met someone coming down who was taking pictures with a drone and seemed fairly well off. We chatted for a bit – a surprising number of people spoke great English. He promised he would at least stop the dog from following us into the road, and also ask anyone else he saw if they knew the owner. We left with a heavy heart. With any luck someone took pity and took doggo in – our only solace is that the guy we left him with seemed like a good person and maybe in need of a pet? Despite what we’re used to in first world countries – that shelters aren’t great and adoption is hit and miss – there are at least mechanisms in place to prevent total abandonment. In many countries around the world, there isn’t even that. We want to believe everything turned out ok for doggo as we made our way down into the city.

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Hiking Hum Hill in Mostar

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Hum – pronounced ‘Hoom’- hill dominates the south-west portion of the city. It’s not a mountain, definitely a hill, but it’s large and extremely up close. We decided our outdoor activity for the area would be to climb it. Luckily for us, we had run in to a local who chatted with us for a bit in the marketplace. His salient warning was to not climb the city-facing side of the hill. There’s a road that runs around the back and is the only safe trail to get to the top of the mountain. The rest of it is still mined.

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To get there, we crossed the bridge to the west side of the river. We then passed through some of the more typical residential areas – medium sized soviet style apartment buildings and their associated markets and restaurants. The prices here are much, much lower than in the old town.

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After the residential area, the road started heading up into the hills and the the houses started becoming a bit more decrepit. Not every house was like this, but a fair number were.

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The top of the hill is marked by a giant cross. In a Muslim majority country, this was something of a big deal when it went up. Many people were quite unhappy, and it doesn’t seem to foster good relations.

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The road winds up and up, here we looked back at the city. There’s not much of a space for pedestrians to walk. It’s much more common for people to drive up and then walk around after the highway ends, but the locals are used to pedestrians hiking up the mountain. It’s still very important to be aware and careful though, especially around the curves.

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At some point near the top the road ends and the hill-road begins. It’s a fairly long hike all told, and the split is roughly halfway.

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Along the side of the mountain road are these stone settings – they each show Christ or another religious figure. The whole mountain was apparently decorated with religious symbols around the time the cross went up.

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One of these comes around every hundred meters or so.

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From the back of the hill you can look down on to the edge of the city and the green hills and mountains surrounding it.

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In the other direction, the majority of Mostar. Even during the hike up there’s a fantastic view.

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Along the way we spotted some amazingly vibrant blue flowers.

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At the top the cross looms large. It’s a fairly minimalist, concrete structure, fairly similar to the one in Skopje, but less Eiffel-tower like.

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On the other side of the cross is the part of the hill facing the city – the mined part. There are some clearly marked trails that people have been through, and the view is very nice.

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We took some time to soak in the view. It seemed fairly important to not go off trail, despite the fact that there had been clear human presence in some of the ‘off-limits’ areas.

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The only other people we had seen go off the road were a family picking up cans and foraging herbs. We ran into another family on the way up who talked with us for a bit, lamenting the downfall of Mostar and the rampant inequality.

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The famed bridge was not quite visible from the safe areas. To get a view of it we would have had to walk out onto the face of the hill we had been warned against.

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Having seen the landscape and the city sprawl, we headed back down the mountain. It was starting to get near sunset and the temperature was dropping.

 

The City of Sarajevo

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On the surface, Sarajevo should be like most other Eastern European cities – a mix of Turkish and Russian influence, torn up sidewalks, and crumbling facades. And it certainly does have some (or more) of all of those. Throw in the historical perception of a recent war, and you have a city that shouldn’t be great to visit. Yet it doesn’t feel like a Eastern European city – it feels different, somehow more modern. And as for the war, it’s not forgotten by any means and signs of it are everywhere, but the people are in the middle of moving on and building new lives and a new city. Sarajevo’s history is complicated and violent, and I’m not qualified to say how it got to where it is now, but as a visitor, I can with certainty say I would love to come back.

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Our first impression of Sarajevo was that the people here are very warm and welcoming.  We felt immediately at home and despite hosteling near the old city, did not feel any sense of being in a tourist trap. Our second impression was of the food. It’s delicious, it’s everywhere, and – at least as a tourist on a budget – it’s not very expensive. The historic section of the city is where we ate most of our meals, so everything was fairly traditional. Bosnian food has a huge helping of Turkish influence, lots of Mediterranean spices in their meat, and an appreciation for delicious dough. My favorite was sac – pronounced sach.

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It’s basically banitsa, or buyrek, or any other thin dough wrapped around a delicious filling then baked. But the ones we had – several times – were cooked so that despite being baked, the inner layers came out as though steamed. Absolutely delicious and oddly very reminiscent of the Siberian boozi.

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We also enjoyed a more traditional cafeteria-like restaurant in the old town, this one frequented by pensioners. Our meal there was varied but these dough-dumplings with meat were fantastic.

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There are also several bakeries in the marketplace. All the desserts seem like variations on Turkish traditional recipes, but we unfortunately didn’t try each different one to know. This is the syrup-soaked semolina cookie that I’ve been lucky enough to try in three different countries so far – the bakeries in Sarajevo are some of the best! After the food comes the city’s architecture. Despite being under siege for almost four years and suffering untold structural damage, many of the historical sites came away relatively unscathed.

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In the market place, the center of the old town, centuries old buildings and monuments still stand.

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Walk out towards the river for a view like this one. Lovely old houses, minarets, and the surrounding hills. The river itself is bridged in many places, and each one makes for a great view.

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There is of course more modern work as well.

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Sarajevo also has a whimsical side.

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Even away from the river and the old town, the architecture is interesting.

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This mall in the downtown gives no sign that it’s anything less than a fully modern shopping experience.

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Renovation is always underway.

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And there were lots of examples of really great murals all around the city.

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There’s even room for greenery!

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Like this lovely tree growing out of a wall.

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There’s no way to escape the reality that a war took place here, not long ago. Sarajevo was under siege from the hills – bullets riddled the buildings and mortars fired into the heart of the city. It is a difficult emotion to describe – awe, respect, maybe? Like being confronted something extremely distant and surreal made concrete. These scars are signs of what the people here endured.

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It is very eery to see those familiar soviet-style blocks with gunshots, instead of poor maintenance, damaging the facade.

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Alongside the bullet specked buildings are the mortar holes. Some time after the war, a citizen artist filled in some of them with red asphalt – these are the roses of Sarajevo. Only scars from mortars that killed one or more people. There are plenty of mortar holes in the city that aren’t filled in as well – after a little while walking around you can sort of tell what’s from a mortar versus what’s from regular disrepair.

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Some of the particularly notable roses, or ones near other famous landmarks, have been roped off to protect them. There were once a great many more around the city, but time and reconstruction has removed all but a few.

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The ones that are not ‘sanctioned’ tend to wear away after a while.

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To get a better understanding of what life was like during the war, there is a museum in the city with an entire room dedicated to preserving and showing artifacts, posters, and in this case, an entire apartment. It’s a sad and sobering place to visit – I highly recommend it, but maybe have a less heavy activity planned for the rest of the day.

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The city and its people seem to be moving on. The war is clearly not forgotten, but it is also not holding anyone back from creating a new life and bringing Sarajevo into modernity and prosperity.

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Bosnian Coffee

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There is an interesting story whenever something forgets where it was from and becomes from somewhere else. This story is about a cup of coffee.

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The city of Sarajevo and the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina are each beautiful and complicated. Their histories are long, and storied, and often very bloody. Bosnian coffee comes from a time when the Ottoman Empire threatened and conquered the Balkan peninsula. Slavic through pre-history, converted to christianity in the middle ages, Bosnia faced yet another existential threat. The Ottoman Empire, when it finally conquered the region, wiped out the former ruling structure but allowed the country to keep its cultural identity and name. Because many Bosnians converted to Islam and the empire spread, enveloping Bosnia in even more outer provinces, it reached a point of great influence in culture, commerce, and architecture.  This period is when the cities of Sarajevo and Mostar were founded.

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Bosnians say that they in their province retained the true form of Turkish coffee. Because Bosnian coffee, regardless of what it is called today, was brought by the Ottomans. The turks favor a very thick, very strong brew – almost a sludge. Ordering a Turkish coffee anywhere in the world will get you a cup of thick sludge covered by the liquid coffee. Ordering a Turkish coffee in Bosnia will get you a quick correction – Bosnian coffee – and a tray complete with cups, a pot of coffee, a bowl of sugar, and a piece of lukum. The coffee is the same thick, sludgelike delight, but it comes in the pot that it was prepared in – a jezveh. Every Balkan country pronounces this differently, and the Bosnians spell it džezva.

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There is a ritual in serving coffee the Bosnian way. That’s really what differentiates it from the Turkish coffee, though locals might say otherwise. Bosnian coffee is served in its pot, on a tray. Turkish coffee comes in a cup. Both come with permission and opportunity for a long, luxurious, meandering chat. In Bosnia this holds even more strongly. Gaining its freedom from the Turks did not revert Bosnia’s newfound identity. It still stands out amongst its Balkan neighbors being a Muslim majority nation. It stands out even further for being the last major armed conflict (not counting Ukraine now) on the European continent.
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During the Bosnian war, the social ritual of Bosnian coffee became a touchstone, a point of grounding for the residents. With extremely limited supplies, the ritual remained as the coffee was washed away. Any boiled drink, preferably brownish, served in its place – a reason to get together, to talk, to try and experience normalcy in the face of siege and war. Now, the war past but not forgotten, coffee once again proliferates the country, though the full ritual of it is slowly dying out. Many places will serve espresso or nescafe, and the cafes where true Bosnian coffee are served a fewer than before. In busy tourist towns and central markets though, there will always be a place for the tray with its attendant pot, cups, and bowls. This is lucky, because it is some of the best coffee anywhere.

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Skopje to Sarajevo – a terrible bus ride

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Our few days in Skopje were over, and our next steps were to bus over to Bosnia. We had read that there were fairly frequent busses running between the cities so it shouldn’t have been a problem. The first sign that maybe we chose the wrong method of transit was the friendly lady manning the ticket counter at the station explained that the only buses out were on Wednesday and Sunday at 8 pm and would take about 10 hours. We bought our tickets for the Wednesday bus. Overnights aren’t usually a problem, and we’ve done our fair share of them so far.

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The streetlight lit walk back to the station – mercifully short with all of our gear.

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It seemed like a normal economy bus line. We were early to try and get a decent seat for my legs – the buses in eastern Europe are a bit cramped.

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Our bags below and the bus full, we take off. A man in front of us to the left was very friendly and told us all about his adventures hiking in Bulgaria, the mountains he’d climbed, and the state of the local soccer clubs. He was on his way to Sarajevo for a match – something he said he does fairly frequently.

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They gather up our passports in anticipation of the border crossing.

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At about this time I tried to use the bathroom. It was locked. Maybe it was just for the border crossing I thought. Someone told me something in Macedonian and I missed the nuance. After the border I would try again. Same result though, the man was telling me the bathroom was out of service. The bathroom is probably always out of service.

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Shortly thereafter, the conductor comes back to us and asks us to move. This we learn in loud tones and with help from our soccer fan friend. It’s not entirely clear why, and since we weren’t told anything when we got on, we stay in our seats. An explanation comes out – the conductor, who is also the alternate bus driver, needs to sleep. Ok, somewhat reasonable. We agree to move and the conductor, realizing that we’re together, asks another lady to please move from her seat so that we can sit together instead of separately. We didn’t feel great about this, but it was nice to at least keep sitting together. The lady definitely did not feel great about this.

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The scene that played out afterward could have been from any Three Stooges film. As everyone did their best to sleep, a noise started. A squeak that came in and out, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, never quite on any particular beat. It drove the sleeping conductor mad. Panels were pushed and examined, seats were raised, bags were shifted. The attempt to find the source of the noise was in vain. Finally, after several passengers helped in the search, someone stuffed a blanket between two roof panels near the back seat. It didn’t solve the noise, but everyone involved felt like something had been done, so it was time to try sleeping again.

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Dawn came, and whatever kind of rest we can get on a bus was gotten. All told not too bad. 20171005_081949

Our conductor and football friend slept on.

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Outside, the Bosnian landscape went by. We had passed through Serbia in the middle of the night. Oddly I don’t remember crossing the border into Bosnia, but Natalie does. She remembers it as being very, very cold, at around 4am.

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Several hours of sunrise follow. The landscape and scenery is really quite pretty.

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Finally, sometime early in the morning, we get let off at a restaurant/bus stop.

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Bathrooms are first priority. After that I go to browse the snacks and food available. It turns out they only accept Bosnian currency, and only in cash. As a point of interest it’s nearly impossible to get Bosnian currency anywhere except inside the country, and there are no ATMs nearby. We dig in to what’s left of our travel snacks.

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The bus ride at this point continues on. We had been pretty firmly told that it would be 10 hours. Well, actually 12 hours corrected the driver mid way. Actually, the trip ran on for more than 15 hours. The internet confirms this is about the time it takes, but nobody on the ground was giving that number.

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It’s time to get off the bus!

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Natalie took this picture at the moment of her escape. We would later discover that sadly, her crocheted orange owl had stayed on the bus, its loop snapped off when the bag was jammed under the seat during our seat change.

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One last look at our bus..

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Sweet freedom! The station had an ATM, and a bakery. Bosnia has amazing baked goods, and extremely nice people. The lady at the bakery very kindly took my 50 mark to pay for a 3 mark piece of pie. It’s like buying a stick of gum with a hundred dollar bill. Change and food in hand, we got on the metro system and headed to our hostel!

Can we recommend visiting Skopje? Yes. Can we recommend visiting Sarajevo? Absolutely! Can we recommend the bus between them? No. Fifteen hours on a bus with no bathroom is not great. Unless you’re on a tight budget, take the flight. It’s supposed to be much easier.