BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA, 27th-29th May 2017
We planned to cycle together with Jacob for the next few days through Bosnia, despite him being a bit faster than us. And when I say ‘a bit’ I mean ‘a lot’. With him having so little weight, plus a history of racing bikes when he was younger, his average speed was approximately double ours, and he was usually putting in well over 100 kilometres per day. But he’d read my book, so he was well aware of how slow I was, and he said he wouldn’t mind taking things easy and riding at our pace for a while.
We left around ten, saying our goodbyes to the wonderful Mustafa. He seemed tired and a bit more irritable than usual, but then he hadn’t had any breakfast, and he couldn’t eat until sundown, so he was bound to be a little grumpy. I was going to miss him. He was a good man. But it was a beautiful sunny day and the road was calling us once more. We’d been given some advice from a warmshowers host in Sarajevo to head down the west of the country where it would be less busy, and we set out on a nice quiet road. It was well paved and would have been perfect were it not for the fact that it climbed up and over a pretty big climb.
We tried to turn right and take a dirt road into the Una National Park to visit some waterfalls that had been highly recommended to us. Standing in our way was a barrier and a very friendly official man with a very friendly dog. Neither of them spoke English, but we managed to understand that the man did not think the road suitable for us to attempt on our bikes, as he indicated to us that it was only good for four-by-fours. We all knew very well that anything that a four-by-four could do so could we, but I was put off by the fact that this dirt road clearly went up and over another hill, which probably wasn’t the best idea for Dea’s bad knee, especially as there was an alternative route to the waterfall that was flat. Jacob wanted to go ahead and try this road anyway, but there was also a sign next to the barrier warning that there was a bear on the road, and that settled it for me. Bears steal food, Jacob, bears steal food.
So we went the other way, which was quite alright because it led us past a shop where we bought and ate ice cream, and then to another dirt road that ran right alongside the Una river again. It was a beautiful river now, as turquoise as the most turquoise thing that you can ever imagine. Then, before we reached the waterfall, we saw a rope swing hanging from a big tree that leaned out over the water. Goodness, that looked like fun to me. We all stopped and I ran and got the rope and swung myself out over the river, making a dramatic leap and landing perfectly in the water – if a perfect landing is to land flat on your back, for that is what I did. The water was so cold it was a wonder there weren’t blocks of ice in it. I got out again as fast as I could. Goodness, it had been fun. I wanted to have another go, but I had to share, so I let Dea and Jacob take their turns first. Jacob took us all by surprise by doing a weird flip thing, where his head actually went through his legs. It was like a forward roll, through his own legs, while holding a rope, over a river. It was very impressive. On my next turn I decided to try and see if I could do the same. I almost broke my neck.
The water was too cold to make any more leaps, so we got back on our bikes and bumped our way along to the waterfall. Now this was really a sight. What a beautiful, beautiful waterfall it was. We stood and stared, and stared a little more, than we sat and stared, then we got out some food and ate it while sitting and staring, then we stared some more, then we left.
We got back to our bikes at the car park and were surprised to see another touring bike alongside them. This belonged to Rob, an Australian man who’d been cycling around for a while. He told us he’d just come along on the four-by-four dirt road against the best advice of the man and his dog. “How was it?”
“Fine. Not that difficult.”
Jacob looked upset. He must have forgotten about the rope swing.
We had to retreat eight kilometres back on our riverside dirt road and we were soon back on tarmac and flying along. Well, Dea and I felt like we were flying along, I think Jacob felt like he was in a slow-bicycle-race. But the going was pretty flat now and progress was steady, until we stopped to take a break in a town and sat down by the river. I noticed that there was a bar opposite us and, knowing that the FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Chelsea was about to kick-off, I put forth the idea that we might go and see if they had a telly. To my surprise my two companions, neither of whom had any great interest in football, said they thought it a fine idea.
Unfortunately the bar did not have a telly, but they did have free wifi that was just about good enough to stream the match on my laptop. It took me a while to get the stream to work, however, so I missed the first five minutes and Arsenal’s opening goal. It was alright after that, though, and it was a good first half. It wasn’t exactly how I imagined watching it, huddled over my computer, but I had a pint of lager and the prices were so cheap we ordered food too. Dea and I shared a giant pizza, while Jacob, who can eat more than anyone I’ve ever met, had a giant pizza to himself, and then ordered another meal for dessert. Neither of them had any interest in the football, but I was engrossed by the second half as Chelsea looked to find a way back into the match. Then in the 73rd minute, with Arsenal still leading 1-0, the wifi connection stopped working. I ran around after the barman, asking him to fix it if he possibly could. It came back on in the 80th minute, and the score was 2-1 to Arsenal. It ended that way, and I had somehow managed to watch 75 minutes of the 90 and miss all three bloody goals.
Back to the real world and we made camp just outside of the town at a riverside rest area, then continued along in the morning to another set of waterfalls. These ones weren’t quite as spectacular as the ones the day before. The ones the day before would definitely be in my top five waterfalls I’ve ever seen ever ever, whereas these ones would be, I don’t know, top fifty probably, and that was only really because the spray made a pretty rainbow.
From the waterfalls we climbed up on a very empty road. There were lots of rocks in the road that had fallen down from the cliffs above us and it was unusual to be cycling somewhere where the biggest risk to our lives was not being hit by a car, but by a landslide. To take our minds off the effort of the steep climb, and the imminent threat of rockfall, we distracted ourselves by playing games. Twenty questions was a big hit, and led to such an interesting debate about whether lemon trees are really alive or not. But even twenty questions could not distract Dea from the pain in her knee. Then Jacob suggested she should try putting her saddle higher. It was an inspired suggestion. Dea raised her saddle and felt more comfortable. It was a turning point. In the days and weeks since that moment her knee has got so much better. So thank you Jacob, we owe you one!
We descended the other side of the pass into a town called Drvar. Since arriving in Bosnia we had been travelling through mostly Muslim areas (although a lot was just forested National Park) but suddenly in Drvar we found ourselves in a Serb town. We stopped at a restaurant run by a friendly woman. She couldn’t speak English, but the free wifi taught me that almost all of the Serbs had been displaced from Drvar by Croats during the nineties, though many had now returned. It was the beginning of our introduction to the complicated history of Bosnia, with its three main ethnic groups – the Bosniak Muslims, the Serbs, and the Croats – living in tentative union.
A German couple cycling in the opposite direction briefly joined us in the restaurant and warned us that we had a big climb ahead of us. They were right, and this time Jacob decided not to crawl up at our pace, but to go on ahead and then wait for us. That was alright, the pass was long and steep but it took us through lots of natural forest and provided some great views. It also would have provided us with some great camping, were it not for all the signs warning about landmines. Another reminder of the war, and one that had us waiting until we descended the pass and found a flowery meadow with car tracks in it before pitching our tents for the night.
The next day we decided to play our favourite game, the Spotting Things Game, with our guest competitor, Jacob. It added an extra layer of excitement to have a third person throwing things into the hat, even if with his complete lack of experience he had no chance of beating us two. Well, would you believe it, but the guy only went and spotted a cave from about two miles away, and won the game. Well done Jacob, well done.
Though it was a lot of fun cycling along with Jacob, the day was also quite sobering, for we were travelling through an area that had obviously been greatly affected by the war. It was a Serb area, and a large percentage of the houses that we saw had been left abandoned. They were now stone shells of buildings, with caved in roofs or no roofs at all, with trees growing up out of them. We saw one whole village that had been completely left to nature. We also saw buildings riddled with bullet marks. In amongst this we saw some homes still occupied, some Serbs who had moved back, returned to their land after the bombs had stopped falling, trying to find a normal life again.
Around 5:30 p.m. we arrived into a small village, which was the biggest settlement we had seen for some time. We were looking for a shop, but instead found ourselves standing inside a bar, empty except for the propietor, a friendly man in his sixties. Bald, brown-eyed, with a neat little moustache, he was keen to talk with us, despite not being able to speak much English. I asked him if there was any food around, more to make conversation than anything else. It was obvious enough that this was not the kind of bar that served food, and yet the man was determined not to disappoint us, and said he would go and find us some food. I tried to tell him not to worry, but there was no stopping him, and he ran off to his house across the street, saying he would speak to his wife. Two minutes later, he returned with a bowl of goulash and a big plate of mashed potato for us to share. His wife was evidently a very fast cook. The man’s grown-up daughter, who could speak English, came out to see us as we, somewhat reluctantly, tucked in.
“Are we eating your dinner?” I asked.
“Yes!” she said.
There really was nothing we could do about it now, they refused to take the food back, so we just enjoyed what was a very tasty dinner. The man, whose name was Jakov, sat with us and spoke to us the best he could. These people were Croats, this village marked the end of the Serb area and the beginning of the Croat. We tried to understand how it was to be Croation but to live in Bosnia.
“I love Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Jakov said, “but I love Croatia. I am Croatian. But I love Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
He was clearly a good man, another one. He showed us around his land, on which he grew a large number of vegetables, on which he had chickens running around, and on which, rather fantastically, was a football pitch he said we could camp on. But before camping on it, I suggested we have a match. Unfortunately Jakov was injured and couldn’t play (though he dearly wanted to), so his 14-year-old son, Ivan, was drafted in to make up the numbers instead. As you’ll remember, neither Dea nor Jacob are much into football, so when me and Ivan were put on the same team (by me) I thought we were sure to win. Alas, the game ended 1-1 after a rather miraculous punt up the pitch by Jacob somehow rolled into the goal. I was sure Ivan and I would have gone on to find a winner, but before we could do so Dea and Jacob both sat down and said they’d had enough.
With our opponents seated, Ivan and I had to find a new game to play, which basically turned into him crossing the ball high in the air so that I could do a spectacular scissor-kick towards the goal. The first time he crossed it I did such a spectacular scissor-kick that it surprised everyone, including me, because I didn’t know I could do spectacular scissor-kicks. The ball missed the goal, of course, but that didn’t matter, it was still spectacular. So we did a few more, and it was great fun, even if I did keep landing hard on the ground, banging my elbow into my ribs in a painful way. And it was all worth it, because one time Ivan crossed the ball and I did a spectacular scissor-kick, and the ball flew at great speed into the top corner of the goal. It was an amazing goal. I think just exactly how Arsenal’s winning goal was scored in the FA Cup final, by whoever it was that scored it. In my imagination anyway. I don’t know how Arsenal’s winning goal was scored do I? I bloody missed it. Anyway, doing the scissor-kicks was great, great fun, until I landed very hard on my ribs and it really hurt. Then I did one more, and it hurt really, really bad, so bad that I felt like something was really wrong, I’d really damaged my ribs. And then I only did a couple more after that.
We headed back to the bar but it was not the end of the games, for next up was table-tennis, a sport that Jakov was fit enough to partake in. He was also fit enough to beat me in the first semi-final. In the second semi-final young Ivan defeated Dea by 14 points to one, and that left the father and son to take part in a truly epic final (I sense, not for the first time). The battle eventually got so intense that one table was no longer enough, and they moved two tables together to make one super long table, and in the end somebody won.
As the evening drew on we got a round of beers in and we all sat around and chatted into the night. Jakov didn’t speak much English, but he had a way about him that made him interesting to talk with all the same and it was lovely to spend the evening with him. He was a friendly, warm man, but there was also sadness in him, a sadness that stemmed from the history of this land. He told us that he still thought often of the war. He told us that his very building had been bombed three times. But he was not bitter. “I have Serb friends,” he said. “Serb people,” he pointed down the road from which we had come, “they come here, they drink. They are my friends. Good people are good people. No Serb. No Croat. Just people. Good people are good people.”