Rising Out of the Ashes: Bosnia the Beautiful

The Bosnian War came about as a result of the breakup of Yugoslavia, beginning in April 1992, three days after my 7th birthday and finishing in 1995 a week before Christmas. It would be the first conflict I was exposed to as a child, a challenge for an elementary school kid like me living in peaceful Canada to fully comprehend.

My father grew up during the Vietnam War and was baffled a few years ago when I embarked on a journey from Saigon to Hanoi. A region of the world he so closely associated with turmoil was now teaming with tourists. Perhaps some day travel journalists will be writing about up and coming hot spots with catchy titles such as Brunching in Baghdad or Nibbling through North Korea. For now the notion seems unbelievable at best.

This past April I found myself flying into Sarajevo just days after celebrating my 30th birthday. As the plane crashed and screeched onto the tarmac I couldn’t help but pause and reflect. I’ve traveled all over the world, from Bora Bora to Borobudur and never once marked Bosnia down on my To Do List. It’s amazing where curiosity can take you…

As I stood in line at immigration clutching my passport I asked myself one question, “If the Bosnian War ended twenty years ago, what does the country look like today?”

I was about to embark on a week-long escorted tour of Bosnia and Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast with Insight Vacations, eager to explore a corner of Europe largely undiscovered by tourist.

Insight Vacations is a luxury coach operator which offers escorted tours of 43 European countries, the most of any operator in the region. The company distinguishes itself from the rest via its mantra, “The Art of Touring in Style,” offering its guests business-class legroom, onboard WIFI, an experienced Tour Director who acts as your very own traveling concierge and expertly planned itineraries offering a range of Signature Experiences that provide a unique and revealing look into the history and culture of each destination.

During my visit to Bosnia I learned that the remnants of war are still fresh here, with many of the buildings along Sarajevo’s Sniper Alley still marred by bullet holes. Yet I’m equally amazed to see how quickly the country has rebuilt itself. Its hardworking people optimistic and eager to share their stories. While Bosnia may still be rising out of the ashes it’s clear she’s eager as ever to reveal her bountiful beauty to those who take the time to press her closely.

Upon arrival I had the afternoon free to explore Sarajevo on the solo so after freshening up in my suite at Hotel Europe I hit the ground running. It was a lovely Spring day, sun bleating through puffy cumulous clouds as I began my stroll along the city’s Miljacka River.

I stopped to unfold my map and scout a self guided walking tour of the city’s tourist trappings so I could better understand the lay of the land. I soon realized I was standing on the Latin Bridge, located directly across the street from where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed by a Serbian assassin, setting in motion the beginning of WWI.

Over the course of the next two hours I strolled through Sarajevo’s winding streets finding inspiration in forest filled parks, al fresco cafes, architectural marvels and the choir of multi-coloured vintage trams which whiz and whip to and fro.

That evening we enjoyed a wonderful welcome at one of the city’s top restaurants, The Four Rooms of Mrs. Safija. We were greeted by flutes of bubbly and seated in the chandelier adorned main dinning room which overlooks a petite open kitchen. The Four Rooms of Mrs. Safija comprises a restaurant, wine and cocktail bar, lounge and flower filled summer garden. A visit to the Four Rooms offers an unforgettable ambience which celebrates the legend of a forbidden love affair between beautiful Safija from Sarajevo and Johan, an Austrian Count, during the transition from Turkish to Austro-Hungarian rule.

Dinner was enjoyed in posh surroundings and featured local favourites Sarajesvska Pivo lager, hearty Bey’s Chicken Soup, Sea Bass slathered in saffron sauce, Veal Steak braised in a trilogy of foraged mushrooms and apple adorned baklava.

The following morning we took a tour of Sarajevo’s Old Town, starting at the Gazi Husrev-bey Mosque. Built in the 16th century, it is the largest historical mosque in Bosnia and one of the most representative Ottoman structures in the Balkans.

The Gazi Husrev-bey mosque was built by the famous Ottoman architect Adzem Esir Ali who also built the Yavuz Selim mosque in Istanbul for the Sultan Selim I. The mosque was financed in 1531 by Gazi Husrev-beg, the provincial governor of Bosnia and Sultan Beyazid II’s grandson. Gazi-Husrev-beg is wildly considered Sarajevo’s greatest patron also financing a maktab and madrasa (Islamic primary and secondary schools), a bezistan (vaulted marketplace) and hammam (public bath).

Sarajevo’s Old Town is best explored on foot and is easily tackled in just a few hours. The cobbled streets and Oriental style shops at the heart of the city are a world away from what one traditionally associates with European living. I’m immediately reminded of the exoticism of Istanbul.

Sarajevo is one of the most historically interesting and varied cities in Europe. It is a place where the Western and Eastern Roman Empire split; where the people of the Roman Catholic west and Eastern Orthodox east and the Ottoman south, met, lived and warred with each other. It has been both an example of historical turbulence and the clash of civilizations as well as a beacon of hope for peace and tolerance. The city is historically famous for its traditional religious diversity, with adherents of Islam, Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Judaism coexisting here for centuries.

Get lost strolling through Old Town on the solo and you’ll whisk yourself past ancient mosque and elegant Old Orthodox Church, weave through antique adorned shopping arcades and sip through a steaming cup of Bosnia’s favourite addiction, richly roasted Turkish coffee.

The Sarajevo Tunnel was constructed between May 1992 and November 1995, during the Siege of Sarajevo in the midst of the Bosnian War. It was built by the Bosnian Army in order to link the city of Sarajevo, which was entirely cut off by Serbian forces, with Bosnian-held territory on the other side of the Sarajevo Airport, an area controlled by the United Nations. The tunnel linked the the neighbourhoods of Dobrinja and Butmir, allowing food, war supplies and humanitarian aid to come into the city, and people to get out. It took an average of two hours to walk through the 800 metre tunnel as it measured a wee 3 feet wide and 5 feet 2 inches high.

Today visitors keen to learn more about the Bosnian War visit the Tunnel of Hope which was built onto the historic private house whose cellar served as the entrance to the Sarajevo Tunnel. The museum exhibits archival materials including an 18-minute long movie, war photographs, military equipment and flags. Regarding the museums purpose, Vladmir Zubic, deputy of the City Council of Sarajevo explains, “it’s a reminder to everyone, so that a thing like this tunnel, that provided the people of this city with the minimum subsistence, will never have to be used again. It will be a place where younger people will be able to study a part of our recent past and it will be proof that this part of our history will never be forgotten.”

A short stroll from Sarajevo’s historic Old Town and I find myself staring up at the white and red splashed Sarajevska Pivara. The Sarajevo Brewery first opened in 1864 and quickly became one of the leading producers in Bosnia, with considerable amounts of brew exported to Montenegro, Dalmatia and Albania.

The brewery unfortunately only offers group tours scheduled in advance so if you’re a thirsty solo traveller like me looking for an impromptu quenching your best bet is to pull up a stool at the brewery’s beer hall. The impressive double decker restaurant features pretty vaulted ceilings and a wee stage where local bands entertain into the late hours of the night. I hop up at the bar and grab a pint of the brewery’s signature thirst quenching lager which I’m astounded only costs a mere two dollars.

That evening we drove outside of the Old Town and into a residential neighbourhood teaming with sky high apartment buildings. We were separated into four small groups and greeted by a smiling local who marched us into her apartment buildings rickety elevator. Over the course of the next two hours we sat around a local families dinning room table to enjoy a home cooked feast over inquisitive conversation.

My particular group spent the evening chatting with the mother and father of the household via their younger English speaking daughter. We sipped sweet elderflower lemonade and locally produced Bosnian wine while our hostess eagerly served up a massive feast featuring rice and beef stuffed grape leaves, mashed potatoes, spiced beef stuffed onions, crispy pastry stuffed with cheese and spinach and a walnut adorned slice of sweet baklava.

While dinner that evening did not have the frills and thrills of a Michelin starred restaurant, it was by far one of the most memorable meals one could have ever hoped for. Insight Vacations dubs the local dinners on their itineraries as Signature Experiences, offering guests a unique opportunity to connect with the people who live in the places you visit. Conversation that evening started off with hesitation as we each introduced ourselves to our new adoptive Bosnian family. Conversation quickly dove into what life was like during the war, how the family coped and what the future might be for Sarajevo. As we nibbled on baklava and sipped cups of steaming Turkish coffee the husband of the house passed around old vintage photographs of his family. In one portrait he sat in his army uniform, a haunting image as I stared across the table and saw his weathered face now full of hope.

The following morning we bid Sarajevo farewell and drove south towards the Croatian border. I was gobsmacked by the scenery of rural Bosnia which featured snow capped mountains, rolling hills dotted with fluffy sheep, raging rivers, train tunnels dug into sharp cliffs, tranquil lakes and petite villages.

We made a stop in the small community of Jablanica to enjoy a tasting of the regions famed roast lamb. The picturesque restaurant is a famous pit stop along the route and offers stunning views of the Neretva River and mountain flanked valley below. Guests are greeted by a waterfall and raging river which snakes itself around the building, while the sweet smell of roast meat wafts through the air. I strolled upstream to watch three lambs slowly rotating over an open coal BBQ before finding a seat in the restaurants sun-soaked dining room. We were each given a wee plate of roast lamb which sat alongside crispy fried potato and a crunchy cabbage salad.

Our final stop in Bosnia would be to the country’s most visited attraction, the ancient medieval town of Mostar. The UNESCO World Heritage designated historic town spans a deep valley of the Neretva River, and was developed in the 15th and 16th centuries as an Ottoman frontier town. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (natively: mostari) who in the medieval times guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. The Old Bridge built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, is one of Bosnia’s most recognizable landmarks, and is considered one of the most exemplary pieces of Islamic architecture in the Balkans.

Strolling through Mostar’s cobblestone streets feels a bit like a Fairy Tale making it hard not to find yourself enchanted here. Narrow Kujundziluk (gold alley) bustles joyously with trinket sellers, massive restaurant patios flank the river and offer awesome views of the Balkans’ most celebrated bridge which forms a majestic stone arc between reincarnated medieval towers. The bridge is 21 metres high and frequently offers a stage to members of the Mostar Diving Club who dive off the bridge after collecting tips from cheerful crowd. I enjoyed a wee window shop before heading back to our coach, tempted by cones teaming with fresh whipped gelato and a pint of beer which I slurped with enthusiasm while smirking, “now that’s a hearty lunch.”

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