Saturday, 24 November 2012

Balkania Pt. 17: A day trip with Miran

world-map bosnia


I take a trip out in this edition to a number of places in Herzegovina, one of them being one of the most visited pilgrimage sites on earth, Međugorje.

Which is apt since as well as posting Balkania extracts up weekly for your environment, I’ve also been writing a guide to sacred Staffordshire, my holy land which I shall be posting on this site at a later date. It’s finished now and so if anyone wishes to learn a little about Sts. Chad, Wystan, Rufin, Wulfad, Werburgh, Editha and Modwen, just drop me a line.

There’ll be no Balkania update next week by the way, since I’m off on my travels again, nowhere exotic, but instead a trip around South Wales which I’m looking forward to, checking out the holy site of St. David’s and the cities of Cardiff and Swansea. Don’t worry though, I’ll keep you posted!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

My Flickr album of this trip

Index and links to all the parts of Balkania:

Balkania Pt. 1: Sofia to Varna

Balkania Pt. 2: A Drink in Varna

Balkania Pt. 3: Wedding Bells in Varna (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 4: A Trip to Tutrakan: Tales of Devotion and Despair

Balkania Pt. 5: Of Love, Lust and the Nation (unpublished)

Balkania Pt. 6: Back to School

Balkania Pt. 7: On a Mission

Balkania Pt. 8: The City of Wisdom?

Balkania Pt. 9: And the Tsar, he chose a heavenly kingdom…

Balkania Pt. 10: The Bridge over the Drina

Balkania Pt. 11: The Death-Drenched Drina

Balkania Pt. 12: Jerusalem of the Balkans

Balkania Pt. 13: A City Under Siege

Balkania Pt. 14: Austrian Influences

Balkania Pt. 15: Along the Bosna Valley

Balkania Pt. 16: Under the Airport and over the Mountains

Balkania Pt. 17: A Day Trip with Miran

Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

Balkania Pt. 19: Up the Black Mountain

Balkania Pt. 20: Worth the Bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier…?


Excurison: Blagaj, Počitelj, Kravica Waterfalls and Međugorje

Mostar was distinctly more touristy than anywhere else that I’d been to on the trip. After leaving Varna I’d not come across a single tourist until I hit Sarajevo and those that had been there were dissipated in amongst the vast numbers of locals. In Mostar though, they were far more noticeable and I knew that this was only a foretaste of what I would encounter later on in Dubrovnik.

Not that being touristy is necessarily a bad thing mind, for with tourists can come some distinct advantages and one of them I utilised that day. When researching the trip, I’d wanted to visit Blagaj, Počitelj and possibly Međugorje as well whilst in Mostar, but doing them on public transport would be virtually impossible in a single day. However, when Miran offered an excursion in his car for €10 I snapped it up straightaway for it covered all three and also took in the Kravica Waterfalls, a famous local beauty spot as well.

On the excursion I was joined by two English girls – Sally and Alice – who were training to be doctors, an American named Ryan who was a mathematician and our host himself. Miran was a chatterbox. He liked the sound of his own voice which may account for why he chose a career which involves talking at people all day. That said, he knew his stuff, although it was presented in a typically Balkan way, which is to say, it was the truth, refracted through a particular set of lenses. Miran’s lenses were a Bosniak lens but also a Herzegovinian lens as well, and the narrative of recent Bosnian history that he treated us to differed considerably from those which I’d heard in Višegrad and Sarajevo.

Herzgovina is the forgotten sister of Bosnia-Herzegovina. So often the name of the country is shortened to ‘Bosnia’ whilst her citizens are all ‘Bosnians’. That is perhaps only natural; ancient Herzegovina is but a small slice of the whole country, approximately a quarter of the land area and, as with Bosnia, is divided today between the Federation and Republika Srpska, and regarding the Federation section, that itself is split between two Croat cantons and one ethnically-mixed canton.[1] Even its unofficial capital Mostar is split down the middle with the eastern bank of the Neretva River being predominantly Bosniak and the western bank, Croat. All this notwithstanding, it still maintains its own ambience distinct from Central Bosnia which I’d left the previous evening. The Dinaric Alps that my train snaked its way up and over divides the two regions geographically and whilst the interior had been lush and green, here in Herzegovina it was a dry, arid and classically Mediterranean landscape.

Miran started off his monologue by talking about Tito. It was a Bosniak Tito that he described, a Tito who had done wonders in developing the country, under whom everyone lived in harmony. There was no mention of state coercion or of lack of freedoms, no talk of oppression of one nation or favouritism of another. Indeed, the only criticism of the old dictator that was proffered was rather mild indeed; that he could not afford all the things he built. It was not the Tito that a Serb, Croat or Slovene would describe although it was probably quite similar to the Tito talked about in the coffee houses of Kosova.

Then he moved onto the war and here the story differed radically from the Serb versus Bosniak narrative that I’d encountered from both sides earlier on in my trip. The Serbs were mentioned, but only briefly, at the start. Instead Miran’s ire was focussed far more on the Croats. “We were fighting the Serbs – and doing well against them – and the Tudjmann [the Croatian leader] had this secret meeting with Milošević where they made a pact. We didn’t know about any of this of course and so what happened? One night, at midnight, all the Croats, men that had been fighting in the trenches alongside us, all withdrew to their bank of the river. The next day they attacked us and do you know what; it was the Serbs who started supplying us with weapons!”

In his narrative, which continued on and off for the entire trip, whilst there was no love lost for the Serbs, it was the Croats who were the real bad guys. The Serbs were enemies, yes, but they were more distant and less immediately threatening. The Croats on the other hand were turncoats, traitors – if he’d been Christian I’m sure he’d have said Judases – who had swapped sides and then pounded his beloved city with shells, killing friends and family. “Do you remember the shelling of Dubrovnik?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, when they saw the Serbs shelling the old city of Dubrovnik, NATO decided to help the Croats who were saying that they didn’t have the resources to fight the Serbs yet all the while they were actually diverting troops away from Dubrovnik to attack us here in Mostar.” The message to us all could not have been clearer: one should never trust a Croat.

Our first stop on the Tour de Herzegovina was the tekiya (tekke) at Blagaj. I’ve already discussed one Balkan tekke at great length, that being the shrine of Demir Baba in Bulgaria, and this place was in the same mould. Built around 1520, it was home to a Sufi order, that strain of liberal, mystical Islam that has flourished in the Balkans for centuries. Ever since I first saw a photograph of it, I’d wanted to visit the Blagaj tekke for it is in an incredibly picturesque location at the foot of a two hundred metre high cliff at the very place where the River Buna emerges from the rock. However, when we got there it was all a tad disappointing for the tekke was closed for renovations and so all we could do was stand and look at it.

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 457

The tekke at Blagaj[2]

After Blagaj we travelled on to Počitelj, a stunningly-beautiful Ottoman Era town with a mosque, ancient houses clustered around a twisting main street and capped by a fine ruined fortress with a large tower that reminded me somewhat of a grain silo. We climbed up to that tower from which there were some fantastic views over the town and valley beyond and then retired to a café for a Bosanka coffee before descending to the main road to meet up with Miran and continue onwards.



Our next stop was at the Kravica Waterfalls which, at a hundred metres across and twenty-five metres high, are the largest and most spectacular in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unfortunately, they are also the most popular with the locals and there was a crowd of day trippers lounging on the rocks, quaffing beers at the bar and swimming in the waters. Although generally a seeker of human rather than natural wonders whilst on my travels, I had to admit that the falls were really quite spectacular and so, like my travelling companions, I stripped to swim in the waters beneath them which were crystal clear but also invigoratingly chilly!


Kravica Waterfalls

The final stop on our tour was Međugorje, a small village that is not renowned for its beauty at all but is immensely important in another way. In 1981 six local teenagers were playing on a hillside near to the village when they say a beautiful lady appeared to them and announced herself to the Blessed Virgin Mary Queen of Peace. Following this initial apparition, they claim to have continued to receive messages from her and the village of Međugorje has steadily grown to become the third largest pilgrimage site in Europe with more than thirty million having journeyed there to pay homage to Our Lady. Despite all of this though, the Roman Catholic Church has never officially recognised and authenticated the apparitions and indeed successive diocesan bishops of Mostar have repeatedly ruled out the claims of those whom say that the Virgin appeared to the children as ‘groundless’. Nonetheless, despite a lack of Vatican support, the pilgrims keep coming and so one must asked, what is it that draws Catholics from around the globe to this small Herzegovinian village in such huge numbers?

Approaching Međugorje, Miran’s commentary was none too enthusiastic. “The girls that say that Maryam appeared to them, they all live in large houses now with swimming pools and everyone in the town drives a Mercedes,” he informed us, leaving us to form our own opinions on the supposed piety of such obvious charlatans. But of course, Međugorje is Catholic and Catholic in Bosnia-Herzegovina means Croat and so one would not really expect him to be all that positive concerning the Međugorje phenomenon since it means that the vast majority of the tourists to Herzegovina stay in the village of, and empty all their valuable tourist euros into the pockets of those who he sees as the aggressors in the recent conflict, with the pilgrims being either ignorant of, or not bothered by the fact that just over a decade before the pious shopkeepers of Međugorje were picking off civilians in Mostar with their sniper’s rifles.

And I must admit that my first impressions of the place were far from positive. The huge parish church of St. James had two large flags draped down the front of its two bell towers; those of the Vatican and Croatia. Now, I am no opponent of flying a national flag from a church – in Anglican churches it is almost de rigeur – but this was different. We were in Bosnia-Herzegovina, not Croatia and so it should have been a Bosnian flag draped there, not a Croatian one. Of course, I understood why the Croat banner was proudly on display, Međugorje is in a fervently nationalistic Croat canton of Bosnia-Herzegovina that fought to free itself from the country and join Croatia instead during the war. That war however, was concluded in 1995 with a peace deal that gave the area considerable autonomy, albeit within Bosnia-Herzegovina and since then all efforts have been directed towards including all peoples within that multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina and creating a peaceful and harmonious future for the region. Now whilst one may argue that the Dayton Accords did not leave us with an ideal solution, what one cannot disagree with is that such a blatant display of separatism is hardly conducive to peace and goodwill between men. Anywhere it would have been distasteful; on the front of the most-visited church in all Bosnia-Herzegovina, a church made famous by an apparition during which Our Lady is said to have declared, “Peace, peace and only peace… peace must reign between God and man and between people,”[4] it is a disgrace.

Beyond the church too, it was all none too inspiring. The Međugorje of 2011 is a collection of newly-built hotels, shops and houses, its main street lined with emporiums selling rosary beads, statues and sunglasses whilst advertising cheap phone calls to Ireland and cheap rooms in German. It was ugly, brash, modern commercialism at its worst and it reminded me of those awful resorts on the Algarve and Costas save that the centre of attention was a church rather than a beach.

All of this was of particular interest to me since I regularly go on pilgrimages. I try to manage one a year and yet here I was at one of the major pilgrimage sites in Europe and I was feeling nothing. I knew the main reason for that of course; to do a pilgrimage properly, one has to prepare oneself mentally, to immerse oneself in the Divine, to focus all thoughts towards the Holy. I had not done anything like this and was visiting as a tourist, not a pilgrim and so it was only natural that I wasn’t as affected as I had been on my real pilgrimages. Nonetheless, I did wonder how easy it would be to feel God’s presence in such a place with its boom town architecture and avalanche of religious commercialism. In an attempt to find out, I entered the cavernous and bland church of St. James to pray and there, knelt in one of the pews I got an inkling. The whole church was buzzing with people and yet nothing was organised and there were no services on. Instead people were there as individuals, bringing their own thoughts, prayers, hopes and woes before the Blessed Virgin in a personal and low-key fashion. I saw an old man with a pilgrim’s staff make his way slowly up to the altar which he then knelt before in heartfelt prayer and in him I saw the entire history of Christian pilgrimage, from the earliest saints, to the mediæval penitent, to the walkers on the road to Santiago to myself, but a year before, knelt similarly before the altar in the Holy House at Walsingham.[5] Yes, I could see it now, Međugorje does have something. I however, was not tapping into it.

Later, upon my return to the UK, I sought the opinions of two devout Roman Catholics on the Međugorje phenomenon. Martyn McGettigan, a traditionalist Catholic and drinking companion of mine on a Friday evening, was not impressed. For him, the fact that the Vatican had not endorsed it was enough. Roman Catholicism is a faith based on accepting authority and Međugorje has no authority. Furthermore, despite it being the subject of a commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2010 who are currently investigating the apparitions, Martyn doubts very much that it will ever be declared as authentic, for the local bishops have repeatedly declared the claims to be “groundless” and according to Martyn, Our Lady would never disobey a bishop and indeed during previous apparitions she actually stopped appearing temporarily when the bishop was against it. “Our Lady is the perfect model of Christian obedience to God,” he explained to me. “The so-called apparitions at Međugorje are not.” In addition to all of this, he also has doubts about the content of many of the so-called messages from Our Lady since he feels that they ‘contradict the infallible Magisterium of the Church, and various dogmas.’ “At Međugorje she supposedly tells them things like ‘all religions are valid’ and other such heretical rubbish.[6] Our Lady would never say such things so to anyone who thinks about it, these sightings are obviously fake! After all, the children who saw Our Lady at Lourdes, Fatima and other places all became nuns or priests, whereas the children at Međugorje are now all living in big houses and making a lot of money from the whole thing. I ask you, does that sound genuine to you?”

Fr. Tony Rigby on the other hand, the Roman Catholic chaplain at the gaol where I work, takes a different tack. He’s a big fan of Međugorje which he has visited several times and he says that he likes it because there he can experience English Catholicism like it used to be and like it should be. “There’s a parish church that is always open for prayer, never locked, and it always has people inside making their devotions. What’s more, attending Mass is central to the whole Međugorje experience and that is something that I firmly agree with; it should be central for all Catholics.” But what about the lack of official Vatican recognition of the apparitions? “Well, I believe that that will come with time; there is a commission working on it at the moment, but even so, rather than asking whether this or that apparition is genuine or hot, we should instead be asking whether there is good in it or not; after all, that is what God means – it is where the word came from – and when I go to Međugorje I see much good there, much healing, prayer, devotion and pure faith. And besides, do you know what; they say that Pope John Paul II was extremely supportive of Međugorje in private and that during his 1997 he deliberately had his driver pass through the village without stopping since he wanted to pray there but could not do so officially.” Next, I spoke to Tony of my personal reservations about the place and he was much in agreement: “Yes, I agree with you that the commercialism is not nice, but when you’re on a pilgrimage such things do not matter, you just block them out and concentrate on what’s important. And regarding the flag, I am fully with you on that one. There is a place for the Vatican flag of course, the church is Catholic and the Catholic Church has its headquarters and spiritual heart in the Vatican, but the Croatian nationalism is bad and has no place on such a building. A Bosnian flag, ok, but not a Croatian one.” And as for Martyn’s claims regarding contradictory messages? “I don’t know that any of the messages actually contradict those revealed in the past, but I will admit that a few do differ in emphasis at times. However, you have to remember that all of Our Lady’s messages and all of her apparitions are for a particular place at a particular time. The needs and priorities of the world change with time and, let’s be honest here, if people had listened to her calls for peace and respect for other faiths back when she made them in the 1980s, then the terrible events of the 1990s would never have happened.”[7]

Trans Balkan Trip 2011 465

Praying at the parish church of St. James, Međugorje

Next part: Balkania Pt. 18: The City of the Broken Bridge

[1] As part of the Dayton Agreement, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was split up into ten cantons which are largely autonomous. Most of these cantons are dominated by one particular ethnic group although some are ‘ethnically mixed’ with special protections for each ethnic group within the canton. In Herzegovina, West Herzegovina and Canton 10 are Bosnian Croat whilst Herzegovina-Neretva is ethnically mixed. All my Herzegovinian travels were in the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton.

[2] Thanks to Sally Nevin for the photo

[3] Thanks to Sally Nevin for the photo

[4] Međugorje: History, Prayers, Messages, Map, p.76

[5] See ‘Walsingham Pilgrimage 2009’

[6] The message that he is referring to here was received in October 1981 in which the Blessed Virgin allegedly said: “Members of all faiths are equal before God. God rules over each faith just like a sovereign over his kingdom. In the world, all religions are not the same because all people have not complied with the commandments of God. They reject and disparage them.” It can be read to imply that all religions are equal and the only thing that matters is how much members of any given religion follow that religion. This is clearly against Catholic teaching.

[7] Interview with Fr. Tony Rigby, HMP Dovegate, 13/06/2011

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