Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mostar Bridge Jumping

We took what Lonely Planet calls one of the Great European Rail Journeys through Bosnia into Herzegovina as we left Sarajevo at 7am and meandered to Mostar. It was a very old, small train with just two carriages and huge, reclining seats. Apart from a couple of other backpackers the train was full of fifty and sixty year old fishermen carrying their poles and gear and smoking profusely the entire way. The countryside was gorgeous, though complete with moments of looking at precarious viaducts and thinking, "Surely, we're not going to cross that" and then crossing it a minute later while climbing through the Bjelasnica Mountains.

Mostar is famous for its Old Bridge (Stari Most), which was completed in 1567. From Wikipedia: Charged under pain of death to construct a bridge of such unprecedented dimensions, the architect reportedly prepared for his own funeral on the day the scaffolding was finally removed from the completed structure. Certain associated technical issues remain a mystery: how the scaffolding was erected, how the stone, egg and flour was transported from one bank to the other, how the scaffolding remained sound during the long building period. The Stari Most is believed to have been the largest single span arch bridge in the world at the time it was built. As a result, this bridge can be classed among the greatest architectural works of its time.

Then in 1993 the Croat Nationalist Forces destroyed the bridge during the Balkan War. Much of Mostar was destroyed and remains evident with various warnings posted around the town. The bridge was painstakingly rebuilt over the next decade and re-opened as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It certainly was something to behold and both sides of the Neretva are dotted with restaurants and cafes so we spent almost our entire time in Mostar staring at the bridge. Young men amuse the tourists (and line their pockets) by jumping into the river below. It was quite a production to watch. First, one jumper stands on the bridge clapping his hands and looking like he is about to dive off. As a crowd gathers, he then climbs down and approaches everyone for money. When enough is collected, he makes way for the real jumper who has been standing to the side, pouring huge bottles of cold water over his body so as to ease the shock of the river water when he jumps. Then jumper #2 gets up on the bridge and leaps off it. See the video I took for a quick example.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Falling in Love with Sarajevo

I fell head over heels in love with Sarajevo. The city has one of the best vibes I've experienced - families were out with their kids eating ice cream and wandering the streets at 10pm and the bars were teeming with young people drinking cocktails and Sarajevsko beer. For the first time, the mosque's call to prayer didn't sound like a mournful echo (as I had experienced in Cairo and Dubai recently) but felt joyful and raditated through the city. The mosques were lit up at night, like in this photograph, and the old town (Bascarcija) sparkled.

I would assume that a good part of this vivaciousness felt in Sarajevo is due to the relief that the wars of the 1990s, which so devestated the city, are over. The conflict certainly did not snuff out the spirit of the Bosnians, who we learnt quickly are some wonderful, friendly, engaging folk. When we entered the Bascarcija, where we were staying, we found a maze of alleys and streets with sparse signage and soon found ourselves lost. It was teeming with rain and upon approaching a woman for help deciphering our map, she not only took us directly to where we wanted to go, but insisted on giving us her umbrella.

We spent hours wandering the streets of the Bascarcija, stopping for Bosnian coffee which is always served in a gorgeous copper pot, chatting with locals, and shopping for some copper ourselves in the copper alley where we watched men beat the copper into various objects. A geeky historical highlight was standing on the Latin Bridge where Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated, sparking World War I in the process. A reminder of the more recent war was found throughout the streets of the city in the form of the Sarajevo Rose. Where a mortar shell exploded, killing civilians, the indentations in the sidewalk or street left behind have been symbolically filled in with red paint.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Opera & Bathing in Budapest

I'm sadly back from the Balkans...what an incredible trip. I'll slowly get to everywhere I travelled through, starting with Budapest. The city has been near the top of my European city destination list for years now and I'm glad that I finally got there, yet remained somewhat underwhelmed by the place. Part of the problem may be that I discovered very quickly that I dislike Hungarian wine, but really, I felt sort of sorry for the city. It's economic situation has been highlighted by the riots of recent years and it shows - so many abandoned and run down buildings that look like they should be prime real estate. But the Hungarians were friendly folk and I spent a great day wandering Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube. Walking the Széchenyi Chain Bridge was one of those things I have been waiting to do for years and I also took the funicular railway to the top of the hill, which was cute. The photograph is of the gorgeous Fisherman's Bastion reflected in the window of the seriously ugly Hilton hotel.

The two highlights of my stay in Budapest were going in the Gellért Thermal Baths and then spending the evening at the Hungarian State Opera House seeing La Traviata. How much was my centre balcony ticket? $4.60 Cdn.

Friday, September 07, 2007

World Press Photo 07

I was wowed by the World Press Photo Exhibition 07 today. So many startling images - from fiercesome leopard seals munching on penguin carcasses to David Beckham immediately after a Real Madrid game to the preparation of a child's body for burial in war torn Sri Lanka, it was astonishing. I particularly loved the breakdancing shots in Paris by Denis Darzacq - you can see the whole series here. The photo below is by Arturo Rodr’guez, who was shooting one of the most popular Tenerife beaches as boats of exhausted, dehydrated, and dying African refugees washed up on the shore.

It reminded me of Sontag's theory of photography as an act of non-intervention. She writes: "Part of the horror of such memorable coups of contemporary photojournalism as the pictures of a Vietnamese bonze reaching for the gasoline can, of a Bengali guerrilla in the act of bayoneting a trussed-up collaborator, comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene." (On Photography)