Around 16 miles southwest of Mostar lies the town of Medjugorje, which until 24 June 1981 was considered little more than an insignificant village. Even today, according to the most recent census, the town has a population of only 2,265. Yet in the last forty years, thousands of hotel rooms have been constructed to help meet the demands of up to a million visitors annually. Medjugorje is said to have the most overnight stays in Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of this because on that day in 1981, six youths aged between ten and sixteen years old were walking in the hills, talking, herding sheep, collecting apples, and smoking when a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared before them. Our Lady of Medjugorje, as the apparition came to be known, told some of the youngsters ten secrets that have yet to be revealed, while several of the seers claim to still receive apparitions to this day, often daily. Subsequently, the town was officially recognised as a pilgrimage site by the Catholic Church in 2019.
I was recovering from my first experience drinking rakija when I woke up on Saturday morning to take my own trip to Medjugorje. Truthfully, I had never heard about the events of 1981 before my friends at Meet Bosnia suggested that I could spend a day at a vineyard in the region and I began reading about it. I was enraptured and stunned – who knew that Bosnia and Herzegovina produces wine? My room in the family home-cum-hostel was at the top of the stairs, while the private bathroom was situated in the hallway downstairs. The family lives in a separate building, so when I ventured down to wash in the morning, it felt as though I had the run of the place. Three doors were lined up one next to the other, with my key being for bathroom number two. Inside, there was everything a person could need in a bathroom: a shower, toilet, and wash hand basin; all in a space that is smaller than my bathroom at home, which until then is the smallest I have ever used.
I started brushing my teeth at the sink when I became aware of the sound of running water coming from the next private bathroom, not unlike the steady stream of the Kravice waterfall the day before. It turns out that the rooms are separated by a thin layer of plasterboard, with a gap of around a foot between the top of the partition and the ceiling. I froze, paralysed by the realisation that there was a person taking a shower on the other side of the wall from me. My toothbrush was clenched between my jaws, blue paste foaming over my bottom lip. From the next bathroom, I could hear excruciatingly loud gasps broken by the water, as though a man was being subjected to a round of water torture. For some reason, he sounded Swedish to me, though I had nothing to go on but the sound of him gasping for air. I don’t know why I felt compelled to stand motionless by the sink, toothbrush in mouth, until this other man had left his private bathroom, but for a while, it is the closest I have come to taking a shower with another person.
When I eventually felt comfortable enough to shower by myself, I was refreshed and reinvigorated, ready to make my pilgrimage to Medjugorje. The driver from Meet Bosnia was due to collect me at nine o’clock, so I had time to go to a nearby pekara and play Russian Roulette with the baked goods. I believe it was on this occasion that I got the chocolate filling. Back at the hostel, I had been looking forward to enjoying my pastry with a cup of instant coffee, but I couldn’t figure out how to work the kettle. It didn’t matter what I tried, the thing wouldn’t boil. After all the complexities of trying to figure out the correct etiquette when drinking Bosnian coffee, this should have been a doddle. Instead, the only steam was figurative and coming from my ears. Still, I suppose it wasn’t the worst thing to have happened that morning.
Mirza arrived exactly on schedule, though I was only aware of his presence when I heard him and the elderly woman from the family who runs the hostel engaged in an animated discussion in the garden. Amidst their fluent Bosnian, the driver mentioned “42 Combie Street”, and it occurred that it would have been a heck of a coincidence if the street I lived on in Oban was also an address in Mostar. I introduced myself to Mirza, and we began our journey to the holy pilgrimage town of Medjugorje. He is an older man who has decided to spend his final working years before retirement as a tour guide. We enjoyed a good conversation along the way, bonding mostly over subjects such as the best bars to visit in Sarajevo and football, which very nearly led to me offering an apology for the fact that my team, Celtic, had beaten his favourite club, FK Sarajevo, three times in the last two years. What I felt most sorry about, however, was the fact that Mirza had left Sarajevo at 6.30am to come and pick me up. He insisted that he didn’t mind the journey, but all I could think was that soon he would be watching me drink four glasses of wine at a vineyard and then having to deal with that for the rest of the afternoon.
I found Mirza to be a lovely and fascinating gentleman, even when I was forced to stop myself from laughing when he asked if I was aware that Sarajevo had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. He had a very particular policy whereby his car is the one place he refuses to smoke, which struck me as being unusual for a Bosnian since they smoke everywhere else. According to Mirza, most Bosnian people aren’t especially troubled by the cost of everyday essentials like bread, milk, or gas, whereas if anyone thought of increasing the price of cigarettes – which are widely available for 5BKM [£2.11] for a packet of 20 – “there would be riots.” I learned a lot about the importance of cigarettes in the Bosnian culture. Mirza said that they saved his life in the war; that he just couldn’t have gone through that without being able to smoke. Instead of being paid a monetary wage during the siege of Sarajevo, most people were given cigarettes for their work, which could then be traded for other goods. The first thing Mirza did whenever we left the car was to light a cigarette, and I could understand why.
When we arrived in Medjugorje just before ten o’clock, the sun was beating down on the little town. If God truly was looking over this place and sending the mother of Jesus to pass messages to its children, then he clearly wasn’t giving a fuck about my skin. Mirza invited me to take a wander on my own for a while, so I walked down what appeared to be the town’s main street. On either side of the road were tiny shops selling religious souvenirs. Next to “The Rosary Shop” was a store selling candy, and on the other side stood a place selling replica football strips bearing the names of players such as Lionel Messi or Karim Benzema. It goes to show that, for different people, salvation can be found in many places. Some seek spirituality in a church, others in a sweet jar, while some find it in their favourite football team. Though I’m sure that isn’t the point that was being made.
At the end of the road was the Church of Saint James the Greater, an impressive twin-towered Cathedral that, for some reason, had a clock on each tower. The grounds were busy with worshippers who either funnelled inside for the service that was about to begin or posed for a selfie at the foot of the statue of the Virgin Mary in the garden. My main purpose was neither, instead attracted by the fountain which was offering fresh water. As I topped up my bottle under the tap, a voice whispered out from the loudspeakers on the side of the church building. It was soft and American, maybe what you’d expect of a voice from above in a Hollywood movie, but not in real life in Bosnia. The voice suggested that it is time for people to stop seeing Medjugorje as a pilgrimage, which seemed like an odd statement for a priest to be making to what I assumed was a full congregation inside the church, no different to a chef coming out and announcing to his restaurant that folk should no longer see dinner as a big meal. The voice continued, “and somewhere to top up your tan.” I peeled the polo shirt from my back, took a long gulp of cold water, and considered what it would feel like to have a tan that could be topped up, as opposed to spending my entire time in Bosnia a hot mess.
After a few minutes of reflection on the steps in front of the cathedral, I left to find Mirza, who was enjoying a cigarette in the shade of a coffee shop. Even by eleven o’clock, the temperature was crawling into the mid-thirties, and I think even Mirza was struggling with it. He asked if I was wanting to climb Apparition Hill to the site of the visitations from the Virgin Mary, which he reckoned would take around an hour to get up and back down again. I could hardly even feign enthusiasm for the idea. Given the option, I would probably have chosen to go back to the private bathroom in the hostel rather than climb a hill in thirty-degree heat. “Are you sure?” Mirza asked, probably wondering why someone would come all the way to a pilgrimage town without going on the actual pilgrimage. “Can’t we just sit here and drink coffee?” I whined.
Besides, we had an appointment at the vineyard, and while I have heard of water being turned into wine, I don’t believe there’s anything they can do with body sweat. I was surprised to see how vast the fields filled with grapes were in Herzegovina. To me, it felt as though we were driving through them for miles to reach Vinogradi Nuić, which was fairly remote from civilisation. The family endeavour began planting vines in 2004, and they have ambitious plans to expand their site with a full visitor centre and restaurant. The brothers took me around the facility, describing in tremendous detail the process of producing wine, from grape to glass, all within their philosophy of following nature and her laws without exploiting the soil. What struck me most was the pride they have in their work, although it was the same everywhere I went in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have never met people who have more pride in their country than the Bosnians have.
Finally, we were led back outside to the front of the building, where there was a table that was going to serve as our tasting station. Mirza reached for his cigarettes, while I reached for my notebook, something that was effectively going to be my crutch as I looked to put on a front by making everybody else believe that I know what I’m doing when it comes to drinking wine. The brothers brought out four of their favourite wines for me to enjoy a glass of with them, along with a plate of locally-produced sheep’s cheese. With our table looking out across vines as far as the eyes could see, on the horizon was a group of mammoth hills, the other side of which was Croatia. It is the most serene and exquisite setting I have ever gotten drunk before midday in, and I was keen to write about it all.
Žilavka: White; he says that the wine has “floral notes” but I’m not sure that’s right since I don’t feel my hayfever complaining; easy drinking fruity flavour.
Pošip: White; stronger taste; the kind of wine you would drink back home when you’re trying to convince yourself that it’s summer; Allegedly Melon [also my name for a ska band]
Blatina: Red; just a big glass of elegant, juicy forest berries; 11.45 and I’m drunk.
Trnjak: Red; the king of all wines; can’t tell if it’s from Mirza’s ashtray or if this stuff tastes like smoke; it’s a BBQ in my mouth; now I understand how those children could see the Virgin Mary.
I was too drunk to tell where Mirza took me after we left the vineyard, but as with so many places I saw in this country, there was a mesmerising waterfall along the way. We ate at a nice wee restaurant by the lake, where Mirza recommended that we try the pljeskavica [Bosnian burger]. What we were served surprised even him. The piece of meat was enormous; as big as the plate it was presented on. Considering that we had just gorged ourselves on cheese at the vineyard, it was a real test of our endurance to make it through the burger. I have rarely experienced a triumph like it. The victorious lunch took its toll on us, however, and both Mirza and I were struggling to keep our eyes open during the journey back to Mostar; which was more troublesome for Mirza than it was for me since he was the one driving the car.
When I returned to the hostel in Mostar, the pljeskavica acting as a sponge for the wine in my stomach, a young Canadian traveller was going through the same check-in process I had the night before, though without the rakija. She was talking to the wife of the family about how she and her friends were keen to go swimming in a waterfall, and my sun-kissed ears pricked up. Finally, I was the Irishman from Sarajevo, able to pass on knowledge amassed through travelling. I butted into the conversation to tell the Canadian about the Kravice waterfalls I had visited the day before. She told me that she had heard about the spot but was concerned that it would be too busy for her on a weekend. I assured her that when I was there on Friday afternoon it wasn’t overwhelmingly busy, and pulled the iPhone from my pocket to prove it to her. She huddled over the screen as I scrolled through the photographs I had taken of the waterfall. There was hardly a person to be seen in the pictures I captured. The Canadian marvelled. “Wow, there really aren’t many people there.” I was forced to confess that while I didn’t consider the Kravice waterfalls to be so busy that the Canadian shouldn’t visit, my photographs didn’t paint an accurate picture since I was trying to avoid snapping semi-naked strangers. Then I swiped a little too far into my reel, to the portrait Kenan had kindly offered to take of me standing by the impressive waterfall. I quickly withdrew my phone and we both pretended that we had never seen the image of me posing awkwardly in my orange chinos. As far as I know, the young woman never visited Kravice.
My plan for my final evening in Mostar was to take the free walking tour at six o’clock that was recommended by the hostel and then have some food and drinks around the old town, but there is a famous line by Rabbie Burns about the schemes of mice and men that often rears its head in my life. After a walk around the UNESCO World Heritage site, I was inevitably lured into a street cafe offering cheap Mostarsko on tap. I found it quite relaxing sitting by the side of a busy cobbled street in the old town and watching the world go by. Then a pasty guy in a straw hat sat at the table next to mine, and things changed. He asked the waitress if she had any alcoholic drinks suitable for a celiac. I believe they settled on a gin and tonic. A few minutes later, the waitress came back by our tables and stopped to ask me where I am from. She had obviously marked my accent out in her mind when she served me earlier, because when I told her that I am from Scotland, she turned to the gentleman at the next table and pointed out that he is from Ireland, and left us to it. It was like being a contestant on a terrible television dating show where prospective drinking buddies are paired up in accordance with how easily their accents can be understood. I guess it was kind of sweet of her to recognise that we were two guys sitting alone in a foreign country who are from the same part of the world, but still, I would have rathered that she had used her matchmaking talents to find me a Bosnian woman to talk to.
Nevertheless, I ended up missing the walking tour on account of drinking beer with my Irish date. John Patrick had started the day in Dubrovnik, but decided to take a bus to Mostar because he was tired of how overcrowded Croatia was with tourists. He had managed to find a hotel room for the night and was going to travel back in the morning, but in the meantime, he wanted to see as much of Mostar as he could. In between discussions over the failed UK government, Brexit, Scottish independence, and Irish unification, John Patrick told me about his hobby of participating in Roman battle reenactments. Apparently, the shows are especially popular in the Netherlands. I asked him if he always plays the same character, but he told me that he likes to be flexible and perform roles from both sides of the dispute. He purchased a new costume in 2020, just before the pandemic began, and hasn’t had the opportunity to wear it in public yet, but he was optimistic that the thirst for Roman battle reenactments would soon be reignited now that the world is gradually returning to normality.
I was told by John Patrick that the primary reason for him taking a holiday to Croatia was the news he had recently received which diagnosed him with an under-active thyroid and what he called “a fatty liver”, which he was at pains to point out isn’t caused by consuming too much alcohol. He wanted to get away for a couple of weeks to take his mind off things. It’s especially difficult to resent having your peaceful drink interrupted when you learn that the person you are talking to isn’t well. The Irishman spoke of the difficulties he had been suffering in Croatia due to the heat. His feet were swelling after walking for a while, he couldn’t sleep at night, and he was having to lather his skin in suncream. “You’d know all about that,” he said. What kind of line is that to use on your date? His ambition for the next trip he takes is to invest in a pair of linen trousers he had seen on Amazon for £80. Seemingly the linen shirts he was wearing on this holiday were doing a great job of cooling the upper half of his body, and next time the lower parts were going to be worthy of the same treatment.
At one point, John Patrick opened up his backpack and showed me the traditional Bosnian Fez hat he had just bought from a stall near the Stari Most. He told me that he was becoming concerned that he was bringing home so many souvenirs from his trip that he would have to go to the airport wearing some of his new t-shirts as well as the Fez hat. To illustrate, he placed the cylindrical red felt headdress on top of his straw hat. In the end, it was difficult to tell where the part of me that found the Irishman charming ended, and where the part that was drunk on Trnjak wine began.
I spent more than an hour in John Patrick’s company, which meant that I missed the six o’clock walking tour by a matter of minutes. Instead, I took a stroll around some of the streets of Mostar and happened upon the Museum of War and Genocide Victims 1992-1995. As far as Saturday nights go, this was one of the more harrowing ways I have spent mine. However, it can never not be a valuable experience to learn about the ways other human beings have suffered. Afterwards I stopped for some dinner, where I ordered dolma [stuffed peppers]. Having been in Bosnia for five nights by this point, I believe that I was yet to see a vegetable, and eating dolma seemed to be ample opportunity to rectify that. Though in true Bosnian fashion, the peppers are of course stuffed with beef and rice.
By the Kriva ćuprija [crooked bridge], which was built in 1558 as a trial before the construction of the larger Stari Most, I found the Old Crew Gastro Pub, which had live music being performed outside on both nights I drank there. Before visiting Mostar, I had never considered the tranquillity of drinking beer by 16th-century bridges, but there is a lot to be said for it. Being from Scotland and feeling most comfortable at a bar, I evaded the system of table service by going inside and directly to the source. There, the bar staff spoke entirely in Bosnian, except for the young woman whose job it seemingly was to wait for hapless tourists like me who she could translate for. In my case, my grasp of the language could get me as far as to make it known that I wanted a beer, but then the barman would pose a question and the whole thing would break down. “He’s asking if you would like a large beer,” the young woman translated after a few moments of awkward silence.
This same situation came up every time I went into the bar, like a really bad comedy sketch, so on Saturday night, I asked the barmaid if she could teach me the Bosnian word for large. She didn’t understand what I was saying and initially pointed to the 0.5L marking on the side of the glass. Honestly, it was like talking to my six-year-old niece, though I can only imagine how much more arduous it was for the poor woman. I shook my head, apologised, and said with my slowest, most drunken slur: “If I say large, you say…?” That was enough to bring us onto the same page, though I fear that by the end of the night, I had forgotten what she taught me. Part of the reason for that was the revelation when I returned for another large draft beer that I had been greeting people the wrong way since I arrived in Bosnia. I had led with “dobar dan” before looking to impress the barmaid with my veliko [large] vocabulary, but she stopped me dead in my tracks. “Veče,” she asserted. I assumed that I had misinterpreted her previous lesson and corrected myself. “Sorry, veče pivo.”
“No,” the barmaid came back. “Dobar dan is ‘good afternoon’, you should say dobro veče in the evening.” I felt certain that I was using an informal hello or hey, but that seemingly wasn’t the case. I tried to defuse my embarrassment with a joke. “Can I at least have the evening beer?” The young translator went about pouring my final large beer of the night when I asked her if all of this meant that I had been looking like an idiot walking around Sarajevo since Tuesday, wishing people a good afternoon at all hours of the day. If her smile could have said a thousand words, well, I suppose I couldn’t be sure what any of them meant.
There were no such difficulties with language when I passed the time before my late afternoon train back to Sarajevo at Craft Beer Garden imaimože. The pub sells a vast range of local craft beers, many of them brewed in-house, while the food is all organically grown in the chef’s garden. This was one place where you could be sure that there would be no mince stuffed inside your vegetables. Their pale ale was the most refreshing beer I drank on my trip, and it needed to be on another hot day in Herzegovina. The barman must have recognised my thirst, because he brought a schooner to my table on the pavement and invited me to taste the new beer he had been working on. “It’s the same as the one you are drinking,” he said as I brought the glass to my mouth, “only I have added a vegetable to the brewing process.” It is perhaps the first time I have hesitated from taking a mouthful of beer. If all I could taste from a glass of wine was the allegation of melon, what chance did I have identifying the flavour of a vegetable from a gulp of beer? As far as guessing games go, this was one of the most underwhelming I have taken part in. I wasn’t getting anything from it after the initial flavour disappeared. Eventually, the barman put me out of my misery – if drinking cucumber beer can ever be described as being put out of your misery. I didn’t buy a full pint of it.
The train journey between Mostar and Sarajevo is regularly listed among the most beautiful in the world, not that I saw much of it. A weekend of sun, wine tasting, and beer had taken it out of me, and I slept through much of the two-hour ride. By the time I arrived back in Sarajevo, it was early in the evening, and at least now I could say it. Although I missed the scenery from my seat, the few hours of sleep did me some good. I still had much to experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Coming soon: Sarajevo, Travnik, Jajce, and Srebrenica (part four)