In search of Our Lady of the Mountains in Medjugorje
With the lavender scent of Hvar firmly behind us as we head on our way to Mostar, we take a detour towards the mountains to visit the famous town of Medjugorje in Southern Bosnia. Riding along under a voluminous morning sky, we squint hopefully at a sun that has been known to spin on more than one occasion here. But all we see ahead is the spinning wheels of fifty seater coaches. For us, Medjugorje turns out to be less of a promised land and more of a golden mile. How do you take the spirit out of a place? Bring in the tourist buses…
In the beginning
In the beginning there were five cyclists. With some mountains in front. Technically, the mountains should have been behind us. But the cooling call of the Kravice waterfalls was too much on a hot day. After all, as a friend who pointed us towards the natural attraction pointed out, “How often do you get to swim in falls that look like Niagara?” Anyway, the whole Kravice waterfall excursion meant we were a day late en route for the holy waters of Medjugorje, on a road with no place to escape the heat of the morning sun.
Famous in my lunchtime
I have known about Medjugorje for most of my life. It became famous when I was at school. Six of the residents of this once small village in Bosnia-Hercegovina were experiencing apparitions by the Virgin Mary. She allegedly gave them ten secrets over several decades. And so the pilgrims began to come.
A little research shows that Medjugorje seems to be kind of a less well established Lourdes. A place of pilgrimage for many thousands of Catholics, but without the seal of approval from the Catholic Church that Lourdes enjoys. Despite the fact that the apparitions have been allegedly happening since 1981 the church is still having an inquiry about it. They should ask my Mum. She’s been there twice and says one of the visits contributed to the break up of her marriage. She could probably advise the Pope about it.
Following the way of the cross and the crisps
Anyway, back to the day in question. We are following ‘The Way.’ And the way is strewn not with the crosses of the faithful. But with the litter of the careless. If I had to point out the main difference between Croatia and Bosnia, it wouldn’t be in ethnic groups, religion, coastline, landscape or language. It would be rubbish. You notice it as soon as you cross the border. Bosnia is a fly tipper’s paradise. If Bosnia had a mother, she’d be yelling at people to stop throwing stuff out the car window. She’d be shrieking at them to pick up the litter and keep Bosnia tidy. Well, I know I would.
But we can’t stop to pick up the litter. We have a long hard climb ahead. We sweat and we pedal and we pedal and we sweat. We chuck water over ourselves like overenthusiastic priests at baptism. We know we are getting nearer as the shrines increase. We know we are getting nearer as the density of coaches reaches a peak. We watch out for the sun spinning in the sky; said to be a regular sighting in this town but the sun is often blocked by the cavalcade of coaches also making their way up the hill.
No room at the inn
I’m not one for mixing my religious parables but I’m not sure there would be room at the inn for Mary and Joseph on the weekend we visit. We reach the top of the hill and squeeze in between the coaches and cars and people carrying flags and people wearing crosses, and people carrying crosses and people buying crosses, and people swinging beads and people singing and people pushing wheelchairs and people walking and people eating and drinking in bars.
There are people simply everywhere. And we find out there are 40,000 young people attending a youth gathering here. On top of all the other peak time tourists. And the Irish. Paddy’s Tours are trundling up and down by the minute.
“Why are all those people in fancy dress?” says Hannah, pointing to the monks and the nuns.
Good for business
But of course this is good news for Medjugorje. It might not be the exact news that the Virgin Mary passed on to six people in the days before Yugoslavia tore itself apart. But it is good news for the priest who has written dozens of books on the town that fill the bookshop. It is good news for the hotel owners who have moved in to provide beds for the thousands. It is good news for the long strip of shops selling identical spiritually themed souvenirs. It is good news for the makers of rainbow rosary beads that are alleged to change colour over the course of a visit.
“If she had to pick one place on earth, then why would she come here?” says Stuart incredulously, as he ducks out of the way of another bus.
I phone my Mum
There’s only one person I can ask. My Mum is equally incredulous to hear how the place has turned out. “I wondered what it would be like now. There were hardly any hotels when we visited. And no shops. Just gypsy stalls,” she says. So the spinning coach wheels came after the spinning suns. I ring off before she asks whether I have had an apparition from my Dad to say sorry for everything he did when he was alive.
I explain to the kids that when Mary was first alleged to have appeared this was a tiny rural village. And she came to six children on a mountain road. There were no pizza restaurants. No shops selling giant crosses. The Virgin Mary didn’t have a sign saying ‘Please don’t touch’ around her neck in the shop. At that point not a single one of the 40 million visitors that would follow had yet bought an ice cream in Medjugorje.
How tourism can ruin the very thing it came to worship! As our cycle tour progresses I am seeing Old cities spoilt by cruise ships. I am seeing traditional seaside villages floating in a sea of lilos. And now a pilgrim Blackpool. A priest from Brighton stops to chat to us and reminds us to keep our purses sealed tight in our bags. With tourists come tourist pick pockets. Our Lady would be appalled. And I wonder, how can her glow possibly be seen in all the light pollution from the hotels?
Not spinning sun but spinning stars?
I leave Medjugorje without seeing an apparition in the mountains and without a statue of Mary or a set of rosary beads, but with a set of multi-coloured flannels purchased from the nearest Lidl. In the heat of the afternoon with the temperature still rising like the hills we need them to perform a kind of miracle. Hot and tired we have a near miss with the traffic. The sun stays where it is in the sky, but maybe Mary is behind the scenes, fixing our stars.