Wednesday, 19 October 2011


Valley behind Jajce

 Today saw a trip to the Central Bosnian town of Jajce, about 80 miles north-west of Sarajevo. Roads are customarily narrow, winding and tricky throughout this moutaninous land, and most of today's route was no exception, featuring long, slow ascents up hill (for long periods behind heavy, antiquated lorries carrying half a felled deciduous wood) and then darting like a falling flash of light down an uncoiling spring, on the other side.

[British Rail Voice]We Apologise for the Disruption to your waterfall. Normal Service will be resumed as soon as possible [/British Rail Voice]
 Jajce is a town not much bigger than somewhere like Pitlochry (though without the tea rooms and array of Edinburgh Woollen Mill knitwear), but is famous for three things. Firstly, a spectacular natural waterfall, the confluence of two Bosnian rivers; normally, water from one river tumbles fifty feet down a sheer cliff-face in a gigantic white streak, into a tumultuous meeting with the other down below. However, at the moment, there seems to be some kind of environmental engineering going on. The river at the top is blocked up with some flimsy looking driftwood, and the huge torrent of water diverted down a metal chute on stilts. This is to allow some workmen to do some shoring up and digging of new foundations at the bottom of the waterfalls normal course, by the looks of things. Several of the town's older residents were keeping a close eye on them as they went about their work this afternoon, and will probably continue their vigil, as Jajce's waterfall is as defining for Bosnia-Hercegovina as Loch Lomond is for Scotland. There was a mechanical digger (goodness knows how it got down there) doing something or other, and men labouring away with the roar of the water in their ears.

AVNOJ in Jajce, November 1943. Tito is fifth from the right in the front row.
 The second thing- and most important for my project- was the little AVNOJ museum, housed in an old Sokol (Bosnian youth movement) building at the end of a small lane, about 200 yards from the waterfall vantage point. AVNOJ stands for "Anti-Fascist National Liberation Council of Yugoslavia", and it was here, on the 29th-30th November 1943, that the leadership of the Communist partisans met to discuss the shape and nature of a post-war Yugoslavia. AVNOJ had an initial meeting at Bihac, some 100 miles away, in 1942, but it as the second meeting in Jajce that was regarded as truly significant- as major decisions were taken that were immediately put into effect after the end of hostilities in May 1945. The museum itself is almost apologetically tucked away, but inside, it is well worth it.

...and as it is today, almost unchanged. Tito's chair was positioned right before the lectern.
 The room itself is little more than a large church hall, but it is preserved almost exactly as it was sixty-eight years ago. There is a truly remarkable replica of Augustinčić's portrait of Tito, in, er, gold-painted styrofoam. Alongside such kitsch, however, is a genuinely interesting historical account of the partisan war as it affected each of the Yugoslav republics, and some interesting photographs of the meeting in progress. Pencil portraits of the Allied leaders- Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, as well as one of Karl Marx, are arranged around the hall alongside the obligatory Tito portrait, in establishing a close link, visually, between the partisan leadership, its political tradition, and its contemporary expression in the fight against the Axis occupation.

The building, subsequently, became a central focus of the partisan legend, and its status as one of the main legitimating factors of Tito's leadership in peace-time. A trip here was a very common experience for Yugoslav schoolchildren, and the name and legend of Jajce was imprinted on their minds in history lessons. A very enthusiastic elderly guide showed us around the place, and there wasn't quite the cloying sense of sadness that I had found at Tito's mausoleum in Belgrade. Yugoslavia may be dead and buried, politically, but there is still the sense of important and significant history- for the whole region- having taken place here, even if the museum's visitor numbers have declined dramatically in the last twenty years.

Looking west-by-north-west from the fortress walls
The third thing that Jajce is well known for is the ruined mediaeval fortress, standing on top of a very steep hill, with commanding views of the town and surrounding valleys. In the brief period of Bosnian independence in the middle ages, Bosnian kings were crowned in this fortress, the last coronation taking place in 1461. After the Ottoman take-over of Bosnian territory, the fortress slowly fell into ruin, although the irregular outline of the walls and ramparts are still very clear today. The views of the surrounding valley and the town (even if someone's bonfire seemed to be somewhat out of control, cloaking the centre of the valley in thick white smoke) were absolutely incredible, on a clear, crisp autumn afternoon. Remarkably, too, I found a patch of wild thistles growing within the fortress walls. So, if, in future years, you hear of a new team called "Jajce Thistle" storming the Bosnian leagues and then papping out one of the Old Firm in the Champions' League qualifiers, whilst you're on your summer holiday, I'll probably have had something to do with it.

Jajce Thistles
In more recent times, Jajce featured as an outriding venue for the '84 winter Olympics, and launched a campaign to be recognised as a UNESCO world heritage town, which is still ongoing. In the 1992-95 war, the town suffered a good deal, and was the subject of intermittent fierce fighting, being eventually captured by Serb forces. However, the Dayton agreement awarded Jajce (not without some controversy) to the Bosnian-Croat federation, and it remains within this part of Bosnia today. Tourism, winter skiing, and agriculture keep the inhabitants here going.

The drive back through Travnik, the town made famous by Ivo Andrić's Bosnian Chronicle, in the gloaming, was memorable. Bosnia is softly, gently fading from summer green to autumn gold.

Tomorrow it's Mostar: then, I had an e-mail saying I could go and visit the closed National gallery and see the collection on Monday. Happy days!

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