Most people visiting Medjugorje have concerns of a spiritual nature. Mine was a fashion dilemma. Chronic ankle tendonitis led to my physiotherapist’s recommendation of wearing runners for the duration of my holiday in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a fashion faux pas I was prepared to endure except in the presence of Italians. We all have anxieties about international travel and looking shabby beside an Italian is one of mine. And I was bound to bump into many in the Bosnian town which is home to one of the world’s most visited catholic pilgrimage sites.
And so I arrived in Medjugorje wearing sandals, mingling with pilgrims from mainly Ireland and Italy. I travelled to Medjugorje as a day trip by public bus from Mostar over the mountainous terrain of the Neretva valley. One would think that coming from a county like Kerry which has some of the most challenging roads in Ireland that I would be oblivious to sheer cliff drops. Potential passengers should invest in nerve-steadying remedies prior to boarding the bus.
A map is not required for Medjugorje. It consists of two streets perpendicular to each other. The bus station and post office is on one street, St. James’ Church is at the end of the other. Walking up Papa Ivana Pavla II towards St. James’ Church will take a while, not for its length, but for the amount of souvenir shops and cafes which will distract.
St. James’ Church is large in comparison to the rest of the town. Mass for locals was being held during my visit so entry was not permitted. I strolled around the complex which houses the various support structures for visitors. To the right of the church one can see a building with a row of doors, all leading to confession boxes.
At the back of the church lies a covered altar facing rows of outdoor wooden benches. Mass was in session and as I wasn’t an active participant I didn’t linger nor did I want to disturb those who were clearly finding meaning in the service.
The left hand side of the church houses a small shopping centre and an information office where I was advised to either walk or take a taxi up to Apparition Hill. I decided to walk believing that such form of transport would not have been recommended if not convenient or possible. An hour later I arrived at the bottom of Apparition Hill covered in sweat, sunburnt, a blister developing on my right foot and gasping for water. Those travelling with pilgrimage tours will be transported as near to the hill as possible. Independent travellers should learn from my mistake and take a taxi: 10BM or €5 one-way.
I briefly rested under the shade of a sparsely-leafed tree, watching people of varying age and ability descend the path of slippery stones haphazardly arranged by nature. I found this people-watching a humbling experience as not all of the emotions etched on faces were that of relief, achievement or peace. With a break in the crowd I began to ascend the rocky path and soon discovered the error of my footwear choice. I persevered but only as far as the Fourth Station of the Cross. I was genuinely disappointed at being unable to complete the task and satisfy my curiosity surrounding the apex of the climb, the actual site of visions. I vowed to return with a better pair of shoes.
I can appreciate that readers looking for religious detail in this post will be disappointed. Such an omission is a reflection of my own lack of religion but I still feel compelled to write about Medjugorje given its relevance for so many and its place in Bosnian tourism.
If I wasn’t looking for spiritual enlightenment then why bother visit Medjugorje at all, you may ask. Curiosity is what brings me to most destinations and Medjugorje was no different. A number of the pilgrims I spoke to were or had been recently ill, or were accompanying the ill, and I was happy to witness the comfort and relief their visit bestowed upon them.
Surprisingly, my ankle felt much better after my trip but the physiotherapist later attributed this to the increased use of other leg muscles walking up Apparition Hill. So no miracle there. For the rest of my Balkan travels I was mistaken for being Italian which is ironic considering my aforementioned fashion anxiety. I took it as the compliment I’ve always dreamed of but in the absence of a credible explanation (i.e. lack of style), one wonders if that was the miracle the town’s spiritual forces were going to re-convert me with. Nice try, Medjugorje, but I appreciate the effort, nevertheless!
© Hazel Joy 2014