Shoeboxes and Showshoeing
Vicky H. Bourne
© Copyright 2018 byVicky H. Bourne
We were at least two hours into the bus journey from Sarajevo before anybody noticed. Helen, a GP from Yorkshire, tapped our guide on the shoulder.
‘Excuse me.’ She was almost apologetic. ‘But will we reach the snow soon?’
‘Oh, we’ve had no snow this year. The first time in fifty years.’ Katja, our guide for the week is a tall, strong woman in her early thirties who speaks impeccable English.
No snow. I, along with eleven other holidaymakers – or adventurers as we would later call ourselves, glance from the decidedly un-snowcapped mountains to the large pile of snowshoes on the back seat. Snowshoeing had promised to be an active winter pursuit which didn’t require strapping my uncoordinated limbs onto two thin strips of wood and throwing myself down a mountain. But no snow. Just my luck.
Two days later I wonder why I had ever wished for snow. It would only hide this majestic, yet harrowing, landscape. We hike, rather than snowshoe, through the highland villages of the Bjelasnica region. It’s open, rocky terrain, interspersed with low stone farm buildings and their unmistakeable copper rooves. What’s most surprising, however, is the fact that many of the villages are deserted. My knowledge of Bosnian history is sketchy to say the least. I’m unsettled to come face-to-face with the ravages of war and surprised that the scars of the 1990s conflict are still so visible. We pass derelict farms, roofless and empty houses, half-hidden shells of former hotels.
The daily hikes are challenging but we are rewarded with panoramic views of crystal-clear lakes and spectacular alpine scenery, without the tourists found in more popular regions. Picnicking for lunch one day I take in the idyllic, peaceful landscape. These wild and remote mountain ranges surround Sarajevo, capital of the former Yugoslavia and capital of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s hard to believe that a mere two decades ago snipers operated from these hills; we have been advised not to walk without a guide as there are still forgotten active landmines. During the war, many frontlines were in these high mountain regions. Wild boar, goat, bear and wolf were exposed to heavy artillery and were hunted for food by soldiers, severely depleting the populations of many species.
Katja is forthright about it all and reels off dates and figures of numbers killed. She was a teenager during the conflict and then joined the army as soon as she was able. I look at her and feel strangely uneasy. We are practically the same age yet have led such different lives. She spent her childhood in a besieged city – often without electricity, food or water. Over 100,000 of her fellow citizens died. She has fought, faced death and perhaps even killed. I feel I’m the naïve, privileged holidaymaker whose biggest disappointment in life is the cancellation of my yoga class. War has never been real to my generation, just something we read about in history textbooks and encounter in nostalgic films.
Particularly poignant is day four’s hike through the pine and beech forests. After picnicking in the sun, we emerge to a sad sight - a ski resort with no snow. We pass muddy slopes, unmoving chair lifts, a bare-metal bobsled track. Here, thirty years ago, Great Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won Olympic Gold to the haunting notes of Ravel’s Bolero. Ten years later much of the resort’s infrastructure was destroyed by war. Today ski tourism is re-establishing itself and the skiing is said to be excellent – when there is snow.
The final day takes us back to the capital. ‘East meets west’ is a cliché but literally accurate in the case of Sarajevo, a city of over half a million people. Katja leads us through narrow backstreets to the heart of the city.
‘Stop!’ she orders. ‘Look right’.
We obey. The cobbled street twists through Islamic architecture, highly decorated mosques and stone-built minarets. The exotic, enticing scent of Turkish sweet shops, oriental coffee houses and handicraft workshops creeps towards us.
Reluctantly we turn 180 degrees. A collective gasp of astonishment. The same street widens into a wide avenue of Austrian-Hungarian architecture, an elegant, European city centre.
Sarajevo’s ethnic and cultural diversity demonstrates Bosnia’s unique location and assimilation of historical influences – echoes of both the Ottoman and Astro-Hungarian Empires remain evident. Sarajevo is the only city in Europe to boast a synagogue, mosque, Orthodox Church and Catholic Church in the same square.
During the conflict of the 1990s Sarajevo was a besieged city; for almost four years the only lifeline was a 700-yard tunnel under the UN-controlled airport. We visit the remains of the tunnel, now a museum and tourist attraction. Once again, the realities of war hit me hard. The building is splattered with shrapnel holes. The toys and products in the museum display are those familiar from my own childhood. This conflict happened in the days of 24-hour news and mass communications; one of the biggest complaints was that the West looked on and did not intervene soon enough.
Today Sarajevo is a peaceful, diverse and welcoming city. During the past few years business, tourism and culture have boomed, yet recent history remains in plain sight. Blasted, blackened houses neighbour newer structures and most buildings are pitted with shrapnel. Holes in the pavement are filled with colourful putty; a highly visible reminder of exploded grenades.
Waiting for our airport transfer we perch with ice-creams on a low stone bridge. Helen takes out her guidebook and tells me I must be sitting on something. Sure enough, beneath my knees is an insignificant stone plaque. I’m enjoying ice-cream on the spot where, almost exactly 100 years ago, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated – the event which sparked WWI and changed the course of history.
We load the bus with our long-forgotten snowshoes. I feel I should have warmed more to Katja. I thank her and tell her what a fascinating week it has been. I feel I have to apologise for my ignorance.
‘Before this week I knew nothing about Bosnia. I remember sending Christmas shoeboxes as a child but was too young to understand what was happening’.
Katja stops, a huge smile lights up her face. ‘You? You sent a shoebox? We looked forward to those so much. They were our only Christmas presents!’
Flinging her arms around me, she hugs me in a warm, tight embrace. An emotional finale to a thoroughly surprising week.
Vicky H Bourne is a writer and creative adventurer based in the UK.