26 May 2015

Lost in Bosnia

See the photo on the left? That was the setting for a relaxing picnic lunch on the road from Sarajevo to Croatia – at a little village on Ramsko Jezero. I wasn't to know that things were going to get quite a bit darker after this little interlude.

I knew what Bosnia's roads were like, having driven on them enough times before. This time, though, I had only a very basic map and no satnav. But as I had mapped my route through Google Maps and Michelin, I thought I knew the best way of making the five-hour journey from Sarajevo to my uncle's house in the Croatian hinterland near the Bosnian border. The route had even outlined a border crossing that was within only a few miles of my uncle's village.

It was when we reached the town of Livno that things started to go wrong. We were heading towards the mountains when I spotted what looked like the right road across the mountainous ridge into Croatia. There were no signs, but the road was exactly how it looked on the map. It was a brand new road, too new for any markings. Too new for any proper surfacing as well, which we doggedly decided to ignore. It snaked jaggedly in dizzying bends up the mountain for 11km, past no civilisation apart from a single lonely cottage.

Then the road came to an abrupt halt. Maybe the workers had gone on strike, but there was nothing ahead but mountainous scrub. We were in a hire car on a non-existent road with no proper maps and a storm was making its way through the Dinaric Alps. God knows what was on top of the ridge at the Croatian border. We had to turn back.

Unfortunately, we didn't turn back on to the right road. Rather than the proper road, we ended up on a bjeli put, a white farm track rather like the Italian strade bianche that wind through picturesque parts of Italy. This wasn't quite so picturesque. By this time, the forbidding mountains were feeling quite oppressive. The threatening storm had turn into a heavy downpour. It looked bleak – and bleaker still when we realised we had no idea where we were.

It was when we passed through a shelled-out village that I really began to worry. We were in the part of Bosnia that had endured horrendous fighting during the 1992-95 war. We drove through several villages that were ghost towns, decaying wrecked farms with rusting tanks in front gardens. One farm building had graffiti sprayed on it: horribly sinister messages from Croatian and Serbian fighters made me shudder as we drove through the relentless rain.

Finally – after about an hour and a half – we came off the bjeli put on to the road we should have been on in the first place. We eventually came to Bosansko Grahovo, birthplace of Archduke Ferdinand's killer Gavrilo Princip. It was also the birthplace of my father's beloved brother-in-law, but it was too wet and too late to do any exploring. Even so, I stopped at a café to double check I was on the right road. I dashed through the driving rain into a fog of cigarette smoke. Friendly curious faces crowded round me and reassured me that I was on the right road that would take us through Knin and eventually to to my uncle's house. It was considerably far from my original Google Maps route, which seemed more irrelevant as the miles ticked by.

Another couple of hours later and we finally arrived at my uncle's house. The rain had stopped and the temperature became almost balmy as we downed much-needed shots of plum brandy in the garden. My uncle commiserated, and then told me that we had taken the right route after all. The border crossing that was closest to his village was closed thanks to the high number of smugglers passing through. That wouldn't have been the best place to pitch up after a seven-hour drive.

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