“Let us all om”.
On the command 130 people move their arms serenely outwards and aloft. Then they begin. The room fills with a low rumble.
My arms are half in, half out and only half-heartedly raised. My sound is more erm than om. I am self-conscious and well outside my comfort zone.
Then a brief panic. Should my eyes be closed while oming? In my uncertainty I half close them and sneak a crafty peek at my neighbours as they carry om and om. The evidence is mixed.
Om, or Aum, is the chant you hear at yoga, in Buddhism or Hinduism. It is supposed to be the sound of the universe or divinity. At least that’s what I was told.
Tonight it marks the beginning of a concert at Buddha Hall in Magoulades, a small village on the Greek island of Corfu.
It’s the venue for something called Light of Love 2, a week-long “healing world of mantras, songs and circle dances.” Each morning participants undertake two hours of “ecstatic chanting”. Apparently it’s extremely popular and people come from all over the world.
Sounds to me like boot camp for hippies.
Not quite what I envisaged when I arrived in Corfu, one of Europe’s top beach holiday destinations. I’d pictured beautiful mountains lined with cypress trees and beaches packed with bronzed gods and goddesses.
This spiritual “thing” has never really been “my thing”. I am admittedly a one-dimensional, born, live, die, The End, kind of guy. In other words an atheist and also rather short on spirituality. But on my travels I’ve set myself the goal of opening my mind to experiences.
Whenever I’d seen the Light Of Lovers around town I’d been struck by how happy they all seemed. So when I heard about the concert I decided to see what dancing in circles could do for people.
My early prejudices are perfectly met. The flower power generation appears to have been transported from California to 21st century Corfu. There’s a fair amount of long hair, although most is now grey. There are also lots of flowery clothes, just a little more tailored these days. But there is no sign of the free love that so shocked the 60s. I think for some of the older members love now costs. The price being a little purple pill. But I have to admit they do seem genuinely happy.
This being the Buddha Hall they are all sat on the floor. In the middle of the room are Miten, Deva Premal and Manose. They lead us through the next couple of hours. Mostly it’s gentle songs of love, respect and god, not the Christian version but something more individual and universal, I think.
Two hours later my night comes to an end. As I head for home I am struck by feelings of calm and peacefulness. I have really enjoyed the experience. Oh hell. I think my hippy sneer might be on the slide.
The following weekend there’s confirmation.
It’s Miten’s birthday bash. A morning of songs is to be held in an olive grove. All invited. Two rules, arrive quietly and dressed in red and white. I rock up a little late as my motorbike has decided it only works midweek hours.
I am appropriately dressed in pink shirt and faded white, three-quarter length, jungle trousers. Not normally a great look but here I blend in perfectly.
What is immediately clear is a tangible feeling of goodwill. A genuine warmth. The sun shines brightly and the olive grove has a very earthy and welcoming air. The music wafts softly through the ancient trees. Gentleness is all around.
I am feeling the love. Then comes a beautiful and tender rendition of the Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun. I sing along and feel contentment in every fibre of my body.
The music seeps into the souls of the gathering and people begin to stand, raise their arms skywards and start to sway.
I too find myself standing. It all feels quite blissful and soothing.
But that’s where it ends for me.
I am still self-conscious and my arms stay firmly down by my side. Deep within me I know this is still not really my thing.
The best I can say is that my prejudices have been shifted. These people don’t dress like me, don’t think like me. But I understand they are searching for something and on the way to finding it they are enjoying the moment. I no longer dismiss them as hippies. Perhaps this morning, here in the olive grove, happies is a better word.
It is good to prise my shuttered mind open slightly to let in just a few rays of the Light Of Love.
“Let us all om”.
Four and a half months of travel and I think I’ve seen the lot when it comes to accommodation. From rooms in exquisite settings to others where $10 a night was about $5 over the odds. But, hey, it’s all part of this NONY backpacking idea. Rough with the smooth and all that.
However, my arrival at the apartment in the Albanian coastal town of Vlore topped the lot. My host generously picked me up and drove me to the digs. The main picture above is the sight that greeted me. My Albanian language skills didn’t include “where are the walls, the roof, the rooms, the……” You get the drift.
Fortunately one level of apartments had been completed. The owner explained that his family had run out of money so the rest of the building was a shell. I sympathised.
Then I noticed the building next door. A hotel was under construction. Except, I’m informed, nothing had happened for five years. The owner had run out of money without even one level completed. There was a theme developing here.
Vlore is unfortunately a bit of a concrete jungle. Lots of new apartment blocks. Many finished but short on residents, dozens incomplete. The same goes for private houses. Shell after shell after shell. It’s like Beethoven had given up music, was working on a thousand different building projects then……..poof. Dead. Gone. Leaving behind an Unfinished Sea City.
The reason for Vlore’s mess? After decades of dictatorship the country had slowly opened up. Then the people really got the taste for capitalism. Investment opportunities sprang up offering astronomical returns. Anything from 19% a year to 100% PER MONTH. You and I know these ‘opportunities’ as pyramid schemes. Their inevitable collapse cost people their life savings and led to widespread civil unrest.
Ten years on the country had recovered pretty well. Banks were privatised, the economy grew rapidly and money from Albanian émigré poured in.
In Vlore the newly confident people borrowed money to invest in buildings they thought would soon be full of tourists. Others began building dream homes as bad times turned to good. Unfortunately the GFC hit and the shrinking world economy meant money dried up.
I wandered around the foothills of Vlore. There were some lovely homes with fabulous views over the Mediterranean. Sadly there were also more shells in the hills than on the beach.
Tirana, the capital, has a different building issue. It has a worldwide reputation for being utterly drab and grey. The city was undeniably full of ugly, decaying, communist era apartment blocks.
That was until 2000 when along came the new mayor Edi Rama, a former artist. He launched a programme to subsidise paint so buildings could be given a cheap facelift. There were no limits on design but monotony was definitely off the agenda. Many apartment blocks are now riots of vibrant colours in amazing styles. The result is mind-blowing.
Admittedly some of the work is a little frenzied but compared to the previous drab, grey, it is a cheap way of doing up the place. Critics point out that the decay is still there and that it has simply been painted over. But there’s no denying the amazing impact. Many areas are a frenzy of vivid colours and designs.
Edi now has a bigger stage. A few months ago he was elected Albania’s prime minister. Unfortunately, he’s just discovered a huge hole in the country’s finances. The outgoing government was corrupt and closely tied in with the mafia. According to documents published by Wikileaks, the US saw them as “Law breakers turned law makers.” The artist formerly known as the Mayor of Tirana won’t be able to just paint over the cracks this time.
“I think we’re being kidnapped.”
“They’ve locked the doors, closed our windows and they did just pick us up off the street.”
This is not an ideal start to the morning.
My travelling companion for the day is Gloria, a well-travelled, thirty something, spunky American. This morning, however, she is a little spooked.
It was probably my fault. I’d filled her in on Albania’s reputation for rampant crime and gangsterism. I said it was a crazy stereotype and invited her to join me in a scheme to prove this is a safe tourist destination. The plan was to hitchhike back to Shkodra after a ferry ride along Lake Koman.
We’d be starting from a remote area. If all went well it would take about four hours. If it didn’t go to plan…….who knew, especially if the damn stereotype turned out to be true.
I convince Gloria we’re not being snatched. Our would-be kidnappers politely drive us 90 minutes along rough roads to our destination at the foothills of the Albanian Alps.
Lake Koman was created in the 1980s when the Drini Valley was dammed. It stretches for 30 kilometres from Fierze in the north-east to Vau i Dejes, in the south.
Almost anywhere else in Europe and the area would be crowded with tourists. This being Albania there are only 16 of us on the small boat and probably only a handful more visitors in the whole country.
The area is untouched, pristine. Every so often a sparse track leads into the trees to an isolated home. Otherwise this is wilderness.
The landscape at first is pretty. Soon it is almost overpowering. Hills give way to sheer, limestone cliffs. They tower over our small vessel and crowd in on us. At times it looks like we are heading towards solid, impenetrable walls of rock. The gorges are tight and magnificent.
It is a magical two and a half hour ride to Fierze. Normally the ferry won’t return until the next morning but today only a hardy Dutch family plan to overnight. A one hour lunch stop is announced. As we eat I keep an eye on the road I’d planned to thumb a ride along. Only two vehicles head down there in 45 minutes. Common sense gets the better of me and we hastily ditch the hitch idea and scramble back to the ferry.
The appeal is not quite the same on the return journey as backsides get a little sore. At the other end we have to wait 45 minutes for the ‘taxi’ home. It turns out to be a ride in an old UTE. Five of us are in the cabin and three locals are perched on the back. The journey is endless. We stop for every conceivable reason, including picking up bits of scrap metal lying along the road.
Hitchhiking would have been easier and I’m sorry to have missed out, if only for the reason that I’d already come up with the headline for this blog.
However, fate came to my aid a week later.
I had travelled on to the Albanian capital Tirana and then to Berat. It’s known as the town of a thousand windows, full of preserved, classical, Ottoman architecture.
As I sat drinking coffee one afternoon I spotted Gloria. She was on a day trip from Tirana, was running out of time and hadn’t yet made it to Berat’s star attraction. Kala is a huge castle complex perched on the top of a steep hill. Very impressive.
We raced around the site but the walk back down was treacherous. The cobblestones were worn and slippery. Both of us were wearing thongs (flip flops if you are in the northern hemisphere). And then I heard it. An old Mercedes was inching slowly down the hill. I stuck out my thumb and the slightly startled elderly driver stopped and motioned us to get in.
Finally, I was hitchhiking in gangster land. It’s not quite what I had in mind when I wrote the headline, especially as 400 metres later we reached the bottom of the hill and our ride was over. But I can now tell you 100% of my hitchhikes in Albania were crime free and perfectly safe. It all goes to prove you shouldn’t go listening to stereotypes……nor statistics!
The 1.30pm bus to Albania leaves right on time…….at 1.15pm.
Confused? It gets worse.
A week later I am stranded when the daily bus from Vlore to Sarande never leaves at all.
The same day I stumble across a second bus which nobody knows exists, leaves from a bus stop that isn’t really there and is only a minute or two behind schedule……not that there is one.
Welcome to life on the buses Albania style.
For forty one years the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha had total control of his country and absolutely no control of his senses. He turned Albania into a nightmare state, isolated, fearful and paranoid.
It’s currently the third poorest country in Europe. It was routinely at the bottom until the break up of the Soviet Union created pauper states. Moldova now has the “honour”.
Albania’s buses epitomise the country’s mess. There are no published timetables, no bus stations, many of the buses or minibuses, known as furgons, are ancient and the roads are regularly rough as all hell.
On the plus side they are dirt cheap, kind of work when you understand the “system” and travel through some mesmerizing scenery, admittedly sometimes at a pace slightly slower than an asthmatic donkey with a limp.
I’d used buses in Bosnia and Montenegro and both worked fine. But the Albanian bus taking me into the country began the slide into chaos. At the Montenegro terminal there was a printed timetable and even a TV screen, both confirmed the bus was scheduled for 1.30.
However, my ticket stated 1.15. I checked with an inspector. He looked and he shrugged.
The bus did actually pull out at about 1.15. We reversed ten metres until a passenger screamed that the luggage door was wide open.
We started again but after two revolutions of the wheels there’s a yelp. Somebody was on the wrong bus.
Third time lucky? Sadly not. Before the driver can start moving again another passenger asks to get off to go to the toilet. We inch back to where we started.
As Mr Bladder returns four flushed Scandinavian backpackers scramble on board cursing and mumbling something about a 1.30 scheduled departure time. We give sympathetic shrugs.
Finally at 1.27 we pull out, 12 minutes late or three minutes early. I really haven’t got a clue which.
The bus is ancient. Steam powered, I think. Its windscreen is a spiderweb of cracks.
As it chugs through the hillsides the ravines to either side increase in severity. Two weeks earlier 18 tourists were killed nearby when their bus careered off the road and crashed 40 metres down a hill. The government pledged road safety as a national priority. Somebody forgot to tell our driver.
Twenty minutes into the journey his mobile rings.
“Please don’t,” I say to myself.
“Let it ring, ignore it. Pleaseeee.”
My prayers go unanswered, the phone doesn’t. He picks up and drives with one hand on the wheel. For gear changes he has the phone in his left hand, the gear stick in the right and he balances his left elbow on the wheel to steer. This is Albania’s version of hands free.
On severe bends his safety training finally kicks in. He jams the mobile between his hunched up shoulder and his ear freeing the left hand to guide us.
Albania’s buses and furgons park on various streets in the towns and cities. The locals mostly know where they are. Tourists don’t.
They have approximate departure times but only leave when full or overflowing. This can be an hour or two behind “schedule”.
My most spectacular furgon trip was through the Llogara Pass. The old minibus wheezed and spluttered up over 1000 spectacular metres. From the top the Albanian Riviera looked poetic, all dreamy blue sea at the foot of a vertical mountain.
However, the poetry died with the descent. The narrow road down twists and clings to the mountain and constantly doubles back on itself. Safety barriers are almost entirely absent. Last year 13 people were killed and two dozen were injured when their bus crashed down a cliff further along this road. The region has more than its fair share of these accidents. It’s not difficult to see why.
Our driver fights like a bull rider as the battered old furgon bucks and kicks underneath him. The brakes go into overdrive. There is squealing and what sounds like air brakes but it may actually have been bowel movements from the increasingly nervous passengers.
I begin silently praying to the gods of every mainstream religion.
A few turns take us close to the precipice and I broaden my prayers to include every nutcase, lunatic fringe religion on the planet, just in case they know something I don’t
We finally make it safely down and stop for a break and a clean up.
I begin to wonder if my prayers were a factor in our safe arrival. If so which religion or cult did the trick? I hope it’s not the bizarre “Prince Philip Movement”, whose members seriously believe the queen’s husband is a divine being.
I quickly dismiss the idea. I suspect there’s more chance of an Albanian bus leaving on time than Phil the Greek being a god.
**Main picture courtesy of Bairo
It is the perfect place and he has the perfect pitch.
Three hundred and fifty gruelling steps up the sheer Hill of St John the teenage boy is sat waiting. Next to him is an old, battered, cooler box.
“Cold drink?” he nonchalantly asks. It’s early afternoon and blisteringly hot. However, I am focused, a man on a mission and I decline.
But the kid is no fool and he allows me to draw level before following up with his killer line, “You have a thousand more steps to go”. I physically wilt, stop and buy the drink.
Trekking along the zigzag walls up to the fort is no easy hike and the last section of the 1350 steps is classed as a “high risk zone”. That seemed to be to be overstating it. However, risk or no risk the rewards for perseverance are priceless. The medieval buildings are interesting but to be honest they’re a sideshow. What I’ve come for is the view of Montenegro’s Kotor Bay.
Wide eyed and awestruck I feel like I’m perched with the gods supping up the full glory of the world. It is nirvana.
The bay is sometimes called the fjord of the south. It cuts in from the sea in a wide arc before funneling into a narrow channel of water. After this slender entrance the water turns at a right angle and the Bay opens to the south east to reveal its glory, luscious blue water towered over by almost vertical mountains. Immense, sheer, dry rock wall on one side, dark green and forested slopes on the other. It is magnificent and humbling.
At the end of the bay and almost vertically down from my vantage point lies the ancient town of Kotor. It has a fragile foothold on the mountain at the edge of the water.
The Old Town teems with history and is an enclosed triangle. The walls which protect it gradually built up from the ninth century onwards. Within is a maze of medieval piazzas and a crisscross of alleyways. They are home to scores of little shops and dozens of restaurants and coffee shops. Like Dubrovnik the Old Town it’s still inhabited by people living in antiquated homes.
I took a couple of bus trips along both sides of the bay. Vehicles cling on by inches to the edge of the road. Along the eastern side is the historic village of Prabast, a UNESCO Heritage site and the entrance to the bay. It is the place to catch a short boat ride to the small island of Our Lady Of The Rocks.
Legend tells of it being formed by sailors throwing rocks in the Bay after a successful voyage. Over time, the islet emerged. The custom is kept alive each July when villagers take their boats out and throw rocks into the water. There are spectacular waterfront restaurants where the hours easily slip by.
Montenegro, is a new country. Formerly part of Yugoslavia it didn’t acquire statehood until 2006 and is yet to get established on the tourism trail.
The country is in the shadow of its better known neighbour Croatia, one of the world’s en vogue travel destinations. Its sun drenched islands and rugged coastline are a magnet for charter sail boats and landlubbers alike. Most visitors stop at the beautiful city of Dubrovnik and never venture the extra few kilometres to Montenegro. But they’re missing out.
After Croatia the Adriatic coast continues south in spectacular style, particularly Kotor Bay. The journey of an hour or so by bus passes dozens of little bays, many packed with Montenegrins enjoying the coast.
The country’s interior is also a five star draw. It’s a hiker’s paradise of magnificent mountains and superb views to match. Montenegro is small and has a population of just 630,000 but its infrastructure is surprisingly good and it feels like a country on the up.
Do yourself a favour, get there. And if you take a walk up the Hill of St John, stop and buy a cold drink. Better still, buy two. One for you and one for the Gods.
He has the look of an ageing and slightly punch-drunk heavyweight boxer. A beast of a man. I am dwarfed as he circles around me. In his giant hands he wields a cut throat razor inches from my face.
I glimpse two, maybe three, front teeth. A drop of sweat hangs precariously to the end of his nose. The heat is no friend to his size.
The bruiser pauses, stands back a little, then takes a drink from an ice cold beer. His thirst quenched he picks up his razor and returns to the task in hand. My haircut is back on track.
Hrvoje Cikato has been cutting hair, he’d never say styling, for 52 years. His shop is a monument to the bizarre. It houses an eccentric collection of clocks, caged birds, old hairdressing paraphernalia, religious artefacts, girlie calendars and all manner of pictures.
It is a small room in the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik. The Croatian city is UNESCO world heritage listed. The UN would be well advised to consider a separate listing for Hrvoje and his shop.
Hairdressing is in the blood, his father Angelo was a barber for 50 years. They’ve used the shop since the 1940s save for the time the Serbs and Montanegrins laid siege to the city in the early 1990s. Around 100 people were killed and two thirds of the Old Town buildings were damaged.
Among them was the Cikatos’ salon. It took a direct hit. Father and son had completed an expensive refit of the shop a few weeks before the siege. They moved to temporary premises just down the alleyway and couldn’t return for a decade.
The shop is rarely empty. Most callers are friends who come to chat, they also bring the 66 year old some bottles of beer. I hope I’ve timed my cut so that the beer is a help rather than an intoxicating hindrance. His friends assure me he never has more than two or three bottles a day. There are a few empties around the salon including a bottle of cognac. But who’s counting.
The shop is a draw for tourists who venture down the alleyways off the Stradum, the Old Town’s 13th century limestone cobbled thoroughfare. In summertime the city heaves with visitors. Four cruise ships disgorge 11,000 in a single day while I’m there. A walk along Dubrovnik’s walls can take hours.
Many tourists stumble upon Hrvoje’s shop, peer inside and when they spot the exotica their cameras begin to whir. He never complains, knowing some will venture in for a cut. Thank you letters from around the world adorn his walls.
Pride of place is a photo of film star Richard Gere who dropped in one day for a trim. The gentle and personable giant even has a photograph of a member of the Obama clan getting a cut. My enquiries can’t quite work out the exact relationship with Barack but the beer will probably aid his memory later in the day.
One star whose hair he won’t be cutting is Severina, Croatia’s version of Kylie Minogue. While I’m in town she gives a free concert in the Stradum to mark the country’s entry to the EU. The Old Town is packed tight that night. I knew nothing of the diva but a quick search of the net reveals her star status.
Like any pop princess she has a history of controversy. Primarily an affair with a married businessman despite earlier public statements that she was a good Catholic girl who opposed premarital sex. The leaking of a sex tape from the tryst added to the outrage. But as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
This was back in 2004. Sex tapes are a little old fashioned for current en vogue pop stars so the Dubrovnik performance features her kissing women on stage. Much more 2013.
The next night is a more gentle affair, the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra, opera singers, classical guitarists, dancers and choristers do their bit for the EU. I’m not aware of any of the performers having a leaked sex tape……in some cases this is definitely a good thing.
The setting is the Rector’s Palace, an inspiring mix of ancient architecture. It’s a great night except I miss my last bus home. I’m left with a three kilometre walk and two staircases with a total of 400 plus steps.
Which reminds me, if you’re planning on coming here do yourself a favour, visit outside peak summertime and enrol yourself at your local gym’s step class a few months in advance. Dubrovnik has a world monopoly on steps and they will take their toll. They are everywhere and they don’t just come in ones or two.
The good news is that Hrvoje’s shop is in the flat part of the Old Town. Call in and he might share a beer with you while he cuts your hair. It will steady his hands and your nerves.
(Main Picture courtesy of Suellen and Roger Petrie)
*(Warning – this one is for golfers)*
“Are there any golf courses in Bosnia?” I’d asked a few people and been met with shrugs and blank stares. Now it’s Hamza the waiter’s turn
He’s adamant. “No, no. We have none.” He finishes with a laugh that strongly implies stupid question.
In a half-hearted last attempt I turn to the web and open the World Golf Foundation site. Surprise, surprise, there’s not one but two courses listed in the country. Each has only nine holes (for the uninitiated, 18 is the norm) but golf in Bosnia exists.
One course is at Posusje, near the Croatian border, the other is here on the outskirts of the capital.
According to the website the country has just 123 players, 30 of them women. Playing in this outpost of world golf can’t be easy so I head into the hills for the VF Golf Club, Sarajevo, to take a peek.
With so few members I’d mentally pictured a shack for a clubhouse and maybe not even that. What I actually find is a building designed by one of Bosnia’s top architects. And it shows. Completed in 2005 it’s made out of natural stone and wood. The place is spacious and very plush. Tonight there’s even a band warming up to entertain the members.
I ask the barman if the club has a golf professional. Next shock, yes there is, and he’s giving a lesson. I go and look for him and can’t believe what I find. There’s a top quality, all-weather, covered range and it’s floodlit. Members turn up whenever they want, flick a switch and hit until their patience or golf glove wears out.
There’s also a chipping green, putting green and practice bunkers. All in tip top condition. These are some of the very best facilities I’ve ever seen at a nine hole course……except there’s a snag.
“We don’t have nine holes,” the pro Dejan Saran tells me when I meet him.
“Really. The website says you do.”
“It’s wrong. We only have six.”
“Six holes. That’s it?” I ask.
“Doesn’t that get a little….boring?”
“No. We’re happy. Until a couple of years ago we only had four.”
We’re in unchartered waters. I’ve never heard of a club with six holes before let alone one with only four.
We’re joined by Vedran Kosic. He explains the club’s unusual background. The course was the brainchild of his father-in-law Jasmin Selmanagic, a golf fanatic who had to travel abroad to have a game.
Fortunately he’s a wealthy man so in 2001 he funded and built one himself. He also played a major part in the design.
He’d love to extend the current number of holes but the adjoining land is owned by the government, even if they’d sell it would be hugely expensive.
Next I learn the tiny club has a pro shop. It currently has two sets of clubs for sale, one for men the other for ladies. For custom fitting you need to drive north a few hundred kilometres, show your passport at the border and find a golf shop in Croatia.
Finally the star surprise, the course itself. I admit that I thought a six holer would be a litte, well, you know, Mickey Mouse. Turns out it’s got quite a roar.
From the first tee are magnificent views over Sarajevo. However, golfers will have their minds on the opening shot, it’s seriously intimidating. The hole is a precision par three with angled green, water right, a steep bank left and bunkers short and long.
And so it continues. There are blind shots, drives with long carries over water, lots of sand, endless slopes.
Unsurprisingly the average handicap is quite high. I ask Vedran where my 12 handicap would rank me in the country. Definitely top 20, he tells me. Top ten is not out of the question. I blush at my own Bosnian brilliance and instantly decide to move here.
My star rating looks even better when Vedran tells me the website is out of date. He believes Bosnia now has well over 200 players, still hardly enough to cause a queue on the first tee.
Visitors are rare. Each week they can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Members have peace and quiet to enjoy their competitions. All are played over 18 holes, which means three laps of the course. Do they ever get bored? Absolutely not. If anything they relish the mental challenge of competing against a hole which may already have bruised them once or even twice before in the round.
The missing holes are an oddity but this is a proper golf club in every other sense. Beautifully equipped, in top quality condition and with good greens. This place punches well above its weight. It might also happen to be the smallest golf club in the world.
SARAJEVO, JUNE 28th, 2013
There is only me. I am a lone witness for the world.
I stand silently at the spot where he stood and wait for the moment to arrive. I try to put my mind in his but it is utterly beyond me.
People pass by oblivious as the hands of time and history reach 11.15am.
From this precise spot, at this minute, on this exact day 99 years ago, Gavrilo Princip fired a shot that convulsed the world.
It was arguably the biggest individual act of consequence in the history of mankind. And it still goes echoing on.
Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria unleashed a cataclysmic chain of events. Within two months the fragile world had tipped into the abyss and ushered in the carnage of the First World War. There flowed a direct line of cause and effect to the Second World War.
Today in Sarajevo there is a stone inscription and a museum at the point from which the nineteen year old Serb nationalist fired his lethal shot. I ask passers-by if they are aware of the anniversary. For young and old, locals and tourists, there is collective amnesia.
Sarajevo captured the world’s attention at the start of the 20th century and again at its end when war came to the city in 1992. It was brutally besieged for almost four years, three times longer than the siege of Stalingrad.
Eleven thousand people lost their lives. At its lethal peak more than 3500 shells rained down on Sarajevo in a day. The international war crimes tribunal would later hear the city was reduced to a state of “medieval deprivation”. It was not alone. At least ninety thousand more people died in the rest of the country.
I spent a total of six months in Bosnia during the war working for BBC News. This was my first visit since hostilities ended.
Parts of the city were happily unrecognisable. Half a dozen shiny new shopping centres had been built. The Parliament building is a swish reflection of political power. There are new office blocks, mainly for banks, and Porsche has even opened up a showroom. Within each are people going about their normal daily routines. Twenty years ago such mundane normality would have been a dream.
In the old town life is back to normal. Weathered men sit and talk in coffee shops, young couples eat cevapi. The atmosphere on an easy summer morning is relaxed contentment.
There is a lot of change but the reminders of the past are plentiful. Many buildings remain pockmarked by bullets. A few stand abandoned, devastated by shelling.
Outside the city the picture is at best patchy. Towns like Vitez have enjoyed remarkable investment and growth. Others such as Mostar seem stuck in time. The town has an undercurrent of anxiety. A couple of people tell me the football matches are the worst. They say there is raw hatred when teams from the different ethnic groups play each other. It is a fearful time.
Over in Republica Serbska, the Bosnian Serb controlled part of Bosnia, the town of Pale feels sullen and rooted in an angry past.
The ethnic fissures are still there. Bosnia’s three main groups of Croats, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Serbs are a million miles away from a full and happily integrated co-existence.
The Dayton Peace Plan ended the war but it failed to build a viable state.
Instead, Bosnia is now a hapless victim of a hotchpotch of shared power and ethnic quotas. The grand plan to prevent domination by one group has created a complex system of over-government. It is an almighty mess.
I meet Mirza and his family. He says the country’s politicians are full of self-interest, short on national interest. Ethnicity drives their thinking. Political corruption is also rife, he says. Mirza would leave if he could. His views are not uncommon.
He cites the ongoing debate over ID registration. Ethnic politicking has gridlocked the issue since February. It’s left 1500 new born babies unregistered. No ID means no medical card, no access to doctors and no passports. In mid June furious mothers besieged the parliament trapping hundreds of people inside for 14 hours.
Mirza tells me of schools with separate entrances for children from different ethnic groups. Once inside they follow different curricula. When these teenagers complete their schooling their prospects are bleak. More than 40% of the population are unemployed. The figure is a staggering 75% at youth level. It does not bode well for the country.
I ask a number of people if they believe Bosnia could ever lapse back into war. It’s a terrible question to ask, worse still to answer. But Mirza and many more say the awful possibility is a real one. There are others who disagree.
I talk with Anna, she is young and optimistic. She believes the fighting is over for good. She is desperate for Bosnia to join the EU and other international organisations to bind the country into stability.
Anna is a guide at Gallery 11/07/95. On a daily basis she talks visitors through the horrifying details of Srebrenica, the town where more than 8,000 people were systematically executed in the war. She, more than anybody, has to have hope that there is no going back to the insane evil of that time.
As I stand in Princip’s footsteps I can only hope that, in this new century, her youthful optimism triumphs over his idealistic nationalism.
Two facts about Croatia’s capital Zagreb.
A) 109% of the population smoke
B) The city has 76 million coffee shops – that works out at ninety seven for each and every citizen.
Oh, you spotted the exaggerations. Try this then. Replace the word ‘facts’ with ‘impressions’ and now you’ve got a fairly good idea of how it actually feels.
They are the two great passions here. When you combine coffee drinking with smoking it adds up to a state of nirvana for the average Zagrebian (Yes, I made the name up as well. Humour me, I am writing this in a state of euphoric bliss on one of Europe’s prettiest train rides in Slovenia).
Zagreb, particularly the attractive old part of the city, morphs into one huge outdoor coffee lounge. Rows of tables and chairs stretch as far as the eye can see. They’re all there to serve the connoisseurs of coffee.
You’d think this would lead to a wildly manic city full of caffeine fuelled Zagrebists. Strangely, it doesn’t. The difference between here and say the US is that coffee shops are really social shops. They are for meeting and greeting, flirting and fighting (only verbally). They are about human contact more than the drink itself. It’s where life, business and pretty much everything else happens and it makes for a very social and relaxed atmosphere.
However, look closely and what you’ll notice is a whole heap of talking going on and actually not much coffee drinking. A single cup can last an eternity as they animatedly talk the day away. Croatia was ranked 18th in coffee consumption in the latest figures I could find. The biggest consumers? Finland. I can’t explain that one.
A tip for you. If you’re planning on going to Zagreb avoid repeating my mistake. I sat down, ordered my coffee and asked for the food menu. There wasn’t one. They look like cafes and they sound like cafes……but they aren’t. They don’t serve food.
What you will find, however, are cigarettes. Billions of them. Zagreberites seem to be permanently lit up. Choose the wrong table and you will disappear in a Singaporean style smog never to be seen again. This despite attempts by the government to restrict smoking.
In offices and public buildings the recent ban is generally both enforced and effective. The only puffers unaffected are those with frayed nerves – psychiatric wards have official exemptions.
The outlawing of smoking in enclosed bars is a different matter altogether. Nobody gives a stuff about the rules. There are lots of very small drinking holes in the city. In almost every one you’ll see a Zapruder or two with a cancer stick in their mouth.
Small establishments meeting very strict conditions can apply for dispensation to allow smoking. One year after the ban was introduced just 16 bars in the whole country had carried out the work.
Good luck to the city worthy who tries to take action. The reality is that Croatians are born to smoke. Babies who are teething are given Marlboro Lights instead of a pacifier and they never get weaned off them.
The same applies to coffee. Mothers who’ve been downing espressos all their lives no longer produce milk but a kind of light latte. By the age of two the little ones progress to neat cappuccino and on it goes. The good news is that they are happy little bunnies as the early introduction to coffee shop culture teaches socialisation.
This may go some small way to explaining Croatia’s comparatively low divorce rate. All the more strange then that the capital should be the home to the Museum Of Broken Relationships. No, this really isn’t a joke. It actually exists. In 2011 it won a prize for being the most innovative museum in Europe.
I came across it in the old town and thought long and hard about entering. Given my own broken relationship from a couple of years ago I wasn’t sure if this was good for my psyche. But I’d already had 14 coffees and passively smoked 40 fags so I reckoned my health, mental and physical, would be better served in the museum than anywhere else in the city. So in I went.
What you find are the personal stories of the broken hearted along with a donated item which symbolised the relationship. There are bikes, wedding dresses, teddy bears, an iron, handcuffs (everybody in the museum stopped and read that story). There is pain, sadness, hope, anger and bitterness – definitely no shortage of this one. The range of human emotions should make it compelling but for me it didn’t quite work. I’m not quite sure why. It could have been the setting, the storytelling or the uneasy sense of voyeurism, at having a ringside seat at a stranger’s broken heart.
By the time I left I felt oddly flat. I wandered along lost in contemplative thought. Although being Zagreb it could easily have just been a cloud of smoke I’d stumbled into.
Footnote: in case it comes up in a trivia quiz, the citizens of Zagreb are called Zagrebcan or Zagrebchan. Don’t say you don’t learn something from this blog!