A few weeks ago, my teammates packed up our rented STINT mobile and began our Balkan tour with a five-hour trek through the Croatian countryside to Split — an ancient city with a rich history and an exotic, Eastern-European feel.
Upon arrival that evening, the warm, salty sea air, palm trees, and old architecture greeted us like friends. We strolled along the stone streets, illuminated by street lanterns positioned along the buildings. Along the shore stood several cafes with seating that faced the sea. “This is beautiful,” I exclaimed, repeating this nearly every time I turned a corner. I was surprised at how nice the old city was.
After spending the night at the Tchaikovsky Hostel, a few minutes’ walk to the shore, we ventured through town, passed the crowded fish market and narrow streets, to Diocletian’s Palace, the focal point of the city. The nearly two-hour walking tour of the palace was a great use of our time. Not only did we see the best preserved palace and walk along the original stone streets, but we also learned the history of the 4th century palace and of Diocletian, the only Roman emperor to retire.
Here are a few interesting facts I learned:
1. Diocletian’s Palace is so well preserved because people have been living inside the palace walls since it was built.
2. Diocletian worshipped Jupiter, and he believed he was the son of Jupiter. And there are 3,500 year old sphinxes from ancient Egypt that guard Jupiter’s Temple.
3. Diocletian chose to retire to Dalmatia (Split) because he believed the water had healing qualities for his arthritis. (The water in Split has a high amount of sulfur. He also grew his own cabbage, which also has a high amount of sulfur in it.)
4. The room of the palace pictured below is the vomitorium. The vomitorium was common in the Roman Empire because it was customary for privileged guests to make themselves vomit during and after a 27-course feast to show appreciation to the emperor. A 27-course meal is a little excessive, if you ask me.
“Helena Pedina from Hercegovina”
There’s a story that’s been passed down in my family about my great maternal grandmother, Helena Pedina from Hercegovina. Actually, it’s not really a story so much as it’s a joke about her birth name. How often do you meet a Helena Pedina from Hercegovina? So naturally, it’s now a running joke with my team. (My mom’s family is from Croatia and Albania, as well.) Anyway, my mom, Helene, was actually named after her, so you understand why I was so excited to tour this region.
After two nights in Split, our team continued our adventure to Mostar, Bosnia Hercegovina, a city with a mix of old and new. The newer part of the city surrounds the older part. The newer city still has remnants of the 18-month siege during the Bosnian War in the early nineties. Golfball-sized bullet holes blanket run-down buildings and abandoned parking garages. Though the city is striving to rebuild, these buildings serve as a dark reminder of the country’s past.
In the older part of the city stands the Old Bridge, a 16th century bridge built by the Ottomans. Although the bridge was destroyed during the Bosnian War, it has since been rebuilt. This landmark is symbolic of the connection between east and west. On both sides of the bridge is a maze of souvenir shops full of scarves, trinkets, paintings, copper pots, jewelry, and postcards. (I caved and bought a beautiful oil painting of the Old Bridge from a second-generation artist, pictured below.)
As we made our way out of the city, we stopped at the Karadjoz-Beg Mosque, another 16th century landmark. The architecture boasts with intricate details. From the top of the minaret, we had the best view of the city. But the height was too much for me to handle, especially after climbing the steep and narrow 100 steps to get to the top. I couldn’t really enjoy the view because I was so close to hyperventilating. So within a minute, I had to go back down. I guess you could say that the view was “breathtaking.”
After a few hours in Mostar, we once again hit the road, traveling to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia Hercegovina. Sarajevo also has an interesting past, which is particularly evident in the architecture and overall look of the city. The capital has a mix of modern shops and parks, concrete buildings from the Communist era, along with old Austro-Hungarian and ancient Ottoman influences.
I love history and seeing historic landmarks (I get that from my dad), so the one thing I really wanted to see was the Latin Bridge, where WWI began. If you remember from history class in high school, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip. This was the spark that started the war. A museum now sits at the corner to show the history of the time period, and it also displays the pistol that Princip used, as well as his pants (pictured below).
Tourism aside, I think the best part of the trip, though, was spending time with the Sarajevo STINT team (a team who is laboring for the Gospel, like we are in Slovenia) and meeting other Bosnian believers who have a heart for their country. And I’m so thankful for the hospitality of the local church that welcomed us and cared for us while we were there. What a blessing it was to be encouraged by this team, spend time sharing stories, eat some čevapčiči (chay-vap-che-chee) together, and just get to see their lives and ministry in Sarajevo. Because of this, I came home with a greater heart for the world and a greater perspective on perseverance for the Gospel in Slovenia. And for that, I am thankful.