More Thrills than Skills – A Half-life in Journalism, Part 60

Over the next few weeks, is to publish, each weekday, extracts from the memoirs of Scottish war correspondent, Paul Harris. ‘More Thrills than Skills: A Half-life in Journalism’, is being scheduled for publication next year.

Not many people knew this, but blood and battle-scarred Bosnia boasted just four miles of coastline – including a seaside resort to rival Torremelinos.

On the beach at Neum, thousands of tourists still disported themselves against a background of burned out and blackened hotels – Beirut-style. The beach is a mite shingly but the water is beautifully clean and cool. I stayed in the vast Hotel Sunce, a modern brutalist concrete structure built in 1983 housing 800 guests. It certainly rivalled the best of any Spanish hotel: bars, restaurants, casino and my own large room boasted seating area, bathroom and balcony for less than $15 a night.

It used to be in all the tourist catalogues – that was before war tore apart Yugoslavia in 1991. The barman in the luxurious ground floor bar told me I was the first British ‘tourist’ he had seen for five years. In fact, you could come here for a week’s holiday and not even know that a war was going on thirty or forty miles up the road, further to the north.

Neum was established as a resort for party apparatchiks during the golden years of Tito’s unquestioned reign over Yugoslavia. He also gave it to the Bosnian people as an outlet to the seaside – and the sea. Now this coastal resort was dominated by Croats who came here both from Croatia and the Croat-populated parts of Bosnia.

Sixty-three year old Albert Luthi from Konstanz was on the beach enjoying his seaside holiday. The Germans can usually be counted on to be first on the beach but Albert was probably the ultimate in the intrepid traveller stakes.

At night, the bands played the sort of romantic Croatian music which is fashionable around these parts and couples and young children danced into the night in much the same way as Brits do on the Costa del Sol.

On the other side of the bay, another vast hotel provided rather a menacing backdrop. In 1992, Serbian fighter jets swooped on Neum and attacked the hotel with rockets. It was reduced to a shattered and burned-out shell. And on the edges of Neum, Moslem-owned holiday houses had been ransacked and burned out in an exercise in ethnic cleansing.

There was the opportunity for some exciting side-trips from this Adriatic resort if you got bored with the sun, sea and the shingle. Within 90 minutes drive, was the pilgrims’ mecca of Medjugorje where, in 1981, three girls saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. It is still visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims every year. Just 20 miles down the road is the devastated city of Mostar – once the meeting point of east and west, with its ancient, high-arched bridge and unique mediaeval Turkish-style monuments.

It was firmly outside the war zones of former Yugoslavia, but there was one hotel which welcomed me within its hallowed walls on a regular basis as I made my way back to the UK to file stories and pictures.

I first went there by accident. After the airport at Ljubljana was trashed by the Federal forces of Yugoslavia, it was soon discovered that they had stripped the facilities of vital radar and other navigational equipment. This tends to take any airport off the list of internationally-approved arrival and departure points.

I found myself having to take a long train ride to Vienna and then having to hang around there overnight to await a flight to London. With no booking, I asked the taxi driver at the station to take me to “ein gutes Hotel”. I asked for a good hotel, not the best.

We arrived at Vienna’s prime resting place, the exclusive Hotel Sacher Wien, whose coffee shop is the home of the world famous cake, sachertorte. Quite before I realised where we were, the commissionaire and bell boys had my rucksack, flak jacket and helmet out of the back of the car and piled in a shabby heap at the front desk.

I enquired timidly as to the cost of the room. It came in somewhere around US$800. Something cheaper, I ventured? I added that I was a Scottish journalist fresh from the wars in Yugoslavia.

They took pity on me. It was also a quiet Saturday night. The receptionist said they had one small room beside the lift on the top floor and which was the only room in the hotel without an en-suite bathroom, which was conveniently located next door in the corridor. I could have Room 84 for the equivalent of US$80.

The room was small but totally charming with beautiful framed 18th-century paintings of Alpine scenes, chintz furniture and velvet drapes. I was extremely comfortable and could, of course, also enjoy the elegant public rooms of the historic hotel.

The following month I faxed the hotel to order the same room again. I received a polite fax back saying that there wasn’t a single room in the Sacher which was not en-suite . . . and Room 84 did not exist.

So I turned up unannounced. The receptionist raised his eyes from the ledger. “Oh, it is the poor Scotchman, again,” he observed wryly. “Give him the key for Room 84.”

I became a regular at the splendid Sacher Wien.

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