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New Europe

Day Twelve: Medugorje

Apparition Hill 
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On Apparition Hill, Međugorje, pilgrims pray at the spot where the Virgin first appeared to the six children.
Michael Palin - New EuropeI press on, with questions I never ever thought I'd hear myself asking.

'Do you still see the Blessed Mary?'

'Yes, every 18th of March. And she also said I will have the apparition every second day of each month.'

'When do you see her?'

'Always about nine o'clock in the morning. But it is not exactly nine o'clock.' She smiles rather apologetically, 'it can sometimes be before or later'.

'D'you have to be somewhere special?'

'I'm always in Cenacolo.' She points up the road to a drug rehabilitation centre we'd passed on the way here, built by her husband's company and run by a well funded order of nuns.

The fact that Mirjana, someone whose visions have spawned an industry, appears to be no hysteric or wild-eyed prophetess but an ordinary housewife, leaves me feeling somehow cheated. Later in the afternoon, back in Medugorje, I hear Ivan, the only one of the visionaries to whom Mary still appears on a daily basis, talking to an enormous crowd in one of the great purpose-built pavilions behind the church. He speaks softly into the microphone, like a comfortable Californian businessman, in a pale blue polo shirt and jeans, his long hair brushed neatly back. It's as if these extraordinary people have worked hard to look and sound as ordinary as possible.

This being the Balkans, there is, of course, a political dimension. The message of Medugorje is for Catholics only, and the power of this whole operation reflects what has happened to the Balkans since the break-up of Yugoslavia. Catholics have always been the majority here in Herzegovina, but at the time of the Ottoman empire they lived alongside Muslims. Now nationalism is in the air and new countries like Croatia and Serbia define themselves not by what they have in common with their neighbours but what makes them different. Thousands of Catholics have moved down here from elsewhere in Bosnia to avoid living with Muslims, making Medugorje, which offers such comfort to pilgrims from all over the world and which preaches the Virgin's message of peace, into another symbol of the new polarisation.

Whilst we're filming in the main street an old car drives up aggressively in our shot and two heavy-set men get out, slamming the doors. I notice a tag hanging from the mirror. It says 'Heroes' on one side, and on the other is the name and likeness of Ante Gotovina, a Croatian general now under indictment at The Hague for war crimes. The EU had made his capture a condition of talks on Croatian membership.

At sunset we follow a long line of pilgrims up to Apparition Hill where Mirjana, Ivan and their two friends first saw the Virgin. It's not an easy walk and many have to negotiate the rugged path with the help of sticks. The spot where she first appeared is marked by a white statue with fencing around, set in a rough stony area dotted with pomegranate trees and thorn-bush scrub. Some sit or kneel in quiet contemplation around this sacred place but as I draw close to the statue I hear a broad Irish accent whispering in my ear.

'Which way for the crosses, now Michael?' and mistaking my wide-eyed amazement for confusion, the voice adds, helpfully,

'Life of Brian, my favourite film!'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Twelve: Medugorje
  • Country/sea: Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Place: Međugorje
  • Book page no: 31

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