hidden europe 43

Silent witness: the bridge over the River Drina

by Laurence Mitchell


Ivo Andric's book The Bridge on the Drina captures four centuries of life in the town of Visegrad. The book is populated by small-town characters of various religious persuasions — Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims and Jews. In the wake of the terrible conflicts of the 1990s, Visegrad is now mainly a Serb town (and thus Orthodox). Guest contributor Laurence Mitchell introduces us to Visegrad, the small town on the Drina in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At Visegrad in the far east of Bosnia and Herzegovina stands a beautiful bridge. The bridge over the River Drina at Visegrad is not quite as celebrated as the singlespan Ottoman arch that crosses the River Neretva at Mostar in the south-west of the country, but it nonetheless bears a great burden of history. The fate of the old bridge in Mostar was described in hidden europe 33. It collapsed into the Neretva gorge in autumn 1993, and was then rebuilt ten years later. The bridge in Visegrad is no rebuild but the original article, its stones placed over 400 years ago during the long period of Turkish rule in this part of the Balkans. It is not only a thing of beauty but a central character in a novel. One day soon it may become a film star too.

To reach Visegrad from the Bosnian capital involves a journey that feels a little like slipping behind enemy lines. From central Sarajevo it is first necessary to take trolleybus 103 to the end of the line. This meandering route climbs slowly through grey suburbs before finally coming to a halt on a quiet boulevard far from the centre. By then, I was the sole passenger remaining on what had been, just a few stops earlier, a crowded vehicle. The driver cursorily points out where I should go — straight on for a couple of hundred metres to reach Lukavica bus station. There is nothing particularly unusual about this far-flung suburb other than signs in Cyrillic rather than Latin script — any border crossed has been an invisible one — but this is Istocno Sarajevo (East Sarajevo), the city’s remaining Serb enclave, and somewhere down the road we have crossed into the territorial entity that is the Republika Srpska.

Here, where the Drina flows with the whole force of its green and foaming waters from the apparently closed mass of the dark steep mountains, stands a great clean-cut stone bridge with eleven wide sweeping arches.

From 'The Bridge on the Drina' by Ivo Andric (1945)

The bus leaves on time, negotiating traffic to climb to a ridge that reveals a sniper’s-eye view of Sarajevo sprawling vulnerably along the valley floor below. The squares of the modern city centre are clear to see, as is the Turkish huddle of streets that is Bascarsija, the corner of the city most familiar to foreign visitors with its igloo-domed mosques, pencil minarets and tourist shops selling carpets, brass work and souvenir shell cases. Skirting the city’s rim, we briefly return to Bosniak-Croat Federation territory before a road sign announces a re-entry into the Republika Srpska. Leaving Sarajevo behind, the unfolding landscape of rural Bosnia immediately grabs attention, all emerald meadows and lofty pines, steep scarps and velvet valleys.

Half an hour later we stop to pick up more passengers in Pale. Pale, the Bosnian Serb administrative capital during the Bosnian War, is a name to conjure with for those of us who remember the troubling broadcasts during and immediately after the Bosnian War. Pale was a Serb stronghold, a place where it was rumoured that war criminals could find refuge. On the ground, the town looks spectacularly unremarkable — modern, workaday, instantly forgettable. Within minutes we are out of town again, beyond Pale; in a sense beyond the pale.

This is just an excerpt. The full text of this article is not yet available to members with online access to hidden europe. Of course you can read the full article in the print edition of hidden europe 43.
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