If you told me twenty years ago that I would be travelling around the world, I would have brushed the comment off as nothing. I couldn’t care less at the time about leaving the comforts of home. If you told me I would be traveling to Croatia, Serbia, or Bosnia, I would have called you crazy. In 1993, Yugoslavia was breaking apart in all out civil war. The Balkans were one of the most dangerous and chaotic places on earth. But twenty years later, there I am, drinking wine on a curb in front of the now-decrepit 1984 olympic plaza, in Sarajevo… and having spent just over three short days in the city, it has risen quickly one of my favorite cities of all my travels.
Now before I go further, if you’ve read my post on Rome, or know me personally, you know where I stand regarding tour groups. These two weeks spent around the Balkans was with a tour; albeit much different than the typical cruise ship tourist masses that get under my skin, it was still a tour. There were no rags on sticks, and much of the tour was personal free time to do what we wished, but the majority of the itinerary, including trains, busses, and hotels, was pre-arranged. This was one of those cases, where as I’ve mentioned before, I understand why people use this method of travel, as time restraints can make the logistics of getting from place to place challenging. The countries on this leg of the trip are packed tightly, and Intrepid Tours offered a very decent option to get the most out of them in a two week window. Our group was small, only twelve, the people were fantastic, and the whole thing was very casual and laid back… my only real complaint is the lack of time spent in each location. When travelling, it’s nice to find a spot you like, and stay for a while, really dig into the place, unfortunately with a tour, as soon as you really begin to scratch the surface, it’s time to hop another bus.
Hypocrisy aside, let’s get back to the journey. Budapest is awesome. Our little apartment just outside of downtown was small, but perfect for the few days we’d be staying. A twenty minute walk towards the Danube river, and we were in the very bohemian centre of this incredible city, a fascinating contrast of renaissance architecture and expressionless communist-era concrete apartments. Marvelous little restaurants and cafes are everywhere, and ‘ruin bars’ are the big thing. Szimpla Kert is the most famous, and as I understand, original ruin bar: an abandoned apartment building that was taken over by a bar, filled with recycled furniture, electronics, and an old car… like the love child of a flea market and a night club. We spent the majority of the first two days just wandering around downtown, popping into different restaurants and little pubs, getting used to life back in a big city. A couple days in, and we meet up with the Intrepid crew, and have supper and drinks together. On our last full day in town, we get an early start, with some amazing ice cream from ‘Gelarto Rosa’ that the wizards behind the counter form into flowers, and enjoy it in front of a church near the river. From there, we wander the streets a little more, snap some photos of the absolutely stunning Parliament building, and head to city park for the afternoon. Initially planning on spending time in the thermal baths, upon arrival and seeing that it’s nothing more than an outdoor pool (though in beautiful surroundings), we pass, and stop off for a drink in a really cool outdoor cafe/bar that we’d found the day previous. After dinner of delicious pork parts, at ‘Pesti Diszno’, we have an early night, as the first of many early morning bus rides comes soon.
The bus ride and boarder crossing was fairly uneventful, although after crossing into Croatia, there were many subtle differences which stood out. What I noticed most, was the perfectly organized little woodpiles beside nearly every house in the countryside. Not that woodpiles are uncommon, but they were everywhere, and very neatly stacked, the first sign to me of the pride the locals take in everyday tasks. After arriving in Osijek, we spend some time wandering the city with our local contact, the very charismatic Igor, getting a close perspective on life before, during, and after the homeland wars; at one point, Igor tells us how his father saw the car in front of him explode from a mortar while he was driving to work. Osijek is a quiet town with a fortified ‘old town’ from the medieval period, with a laid back, modern city growing out from the river. Aside from some fantastic meals based entirely around meat and starch, we spend most of our time relaxing, drinking wine on the riverbank, and preparing for the busy couple of weeks to come.
Another of many early mornings, and we’re headed towards the Serbian boarder. However, before we reach our destination, we spend the day in Vukovar, a living monument to the horrors of war. Vukovar was one of the hardest hit areas during the crisis of the early 90’s, and is infamous for one of recent history’s worst tragedies. We toured the hospital, which against all rules of war and human morals, was heavily shelled during the conflict. When the towns defences eventually fell, the enemy militia took the remaining 267 people from the hospital – staff and patients, women and children included – to a farm on the outskirts of town, and executed them, while the UN Peacekeepers, bound by their rules and unable to intervene, stood by. Before leaving town, we visited a memorial dedicated to the victims, and the towns old water tower. The water tower was bombed throughout the war, but never fell. It has been left untouched since the war as a standing reminder of what happened, in hopes such a tragic event never happens again.
Crossing the boarder into Serbia, and reaching Novi Sad, we check our bags, and wander the city a little before supper. It was a fairly short visit, so unfortunately we weren’t able to explore too far, aside from seeing a few beautiful cathedrals, and a nice pedestrian promenade full of cafes and shops. Although we did enjoy some fantastic food, and incredibly cheap beer… next time I’m in the area, I’ll definitely be spending more time to explore this town. The following afternoon, upon leaving Novi Sad, our train is delayed, and we make the best of our situation by drinking wine, and listening to music in the sunshine on the train platform. When the train shows up, it’s reminiscent of India, as I spend most of the time sitting on my pack on the floor of the train as we wind through the Serbian countryside to the capital city of Belgrade. We enjoy dinner at the oldest restaurant in the city, ‘?’ (that’s actually the name: question mark), another delicious meal of meat and starch, this time with shopska – essentially a Serbian version of a Greek salad, with local sheep cheese – and we head home for an early night. The following morning, we are taken around the central part of town with Bojana, a very eclectic local woman with so much knowledge of the city it was almost hard to take it all in! After spending some time in the large fortress-turned-park, above the confluence of the Sava and Daube rivers, we head back through the large promenade and enjoy a cold drink. Again, as is the recurring theme during this leg of our trip, time is a rare commodity. We spend most of our one full day checking out some sights around town; the Nikola Tesla museum is one, and though the man is fascinating, his museum is not. The most surreal moment of this city for me, was passing the old Ministry of Defence building downtown, still completely in ruins, that was bombed by NATO air strikes during the Kosovo war of ’99. The rest of the afternoon was spent underground, in some of the many caverns and tunnels built over the centuries, whether by the Romans, the Turks, or most recently the Yugoslavian army. Dungeons, bunkers, and weapon storage facilities, some of which became nightclubs in the 90’s, all wind in mazes beneath the city and fortress. We stop for some wine at the last of the caverns, and discover a new way to ‘enjoy’ wine. Apparently in the Balkans, cheap wine is mixed with Cola, to this day I am not sure why. Did it taste good? No. Did it improve the flavour of the awful wine? Yes. Contemplating this bizarre trend, we head back to the hotel to pack for another early morning, and another long bus ride… this time to Bosnia, and it’s capital Sarajevo.
Typically, I despise long bus trips, especially when they require getting up early, but our fearless leader Eliza convinced me that the views across the boarder are spectacular, and worth it. She wasn’t kidding. The Serbian countryside is decent, but nothing I hadn’t seen elsewhere, however within minutes of crossing the Bosnian boarder, we were greeted with turquoise rivers running through mountain valleys of every autumn colour imaginable, dotted every-so-often with quaint little white farmhouses. Never in all my travels has a boarder crossing brought such a dramatic and beautiful change of scenery, if I wasn’t fully awake till this point, I most definitely was now. A few hours later, we arrive in Sarajevo, and catch a smaller bus to our guesthouse, meeting up with our third local contact Muhamed. We spend a bit of time exploring the centre of town, learning some of the history, and finally make our way to the location where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Franz Ferdinand, leading to the onset of the First World War. From that unfortunate moment in history, we head to one of the best meals of the trip, including a puff-pastry-ish bread that I wish I could have found a recipe for, more shopska, and a white wine based goulash which could probably bring about world peace. Yes, it was almost that good. Bellies full of amazing food and beer, we lazily make our way back to our guesthouse.
The following morning, a few of us meet up again with Muhamed, this time for a little heavier of an experience. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia followed suit. Not long after Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, it was Bosnia’s turn. Without getting too deeply into the politics, in spring of 1992, Bosnia declared Independence from Yugoslavia, and Slobodan Melosovic, dictator of Yugoslavia, didn’t like this. The Yugoslav army surrounded Sarajevo and held the city under siege from May of 1992 till February of 1996; the longest siege in modern history. During this time, the Yugoslav military terrorized Sarajevo with snipers, artillery, and mortar attacks. For four years, citizens lived in their basements, were cut off from electricity, gas, and running water. Those who were brave enough ran down ‘sniper alley’ to get to a local spring near the brewery, in hopes of bringing home a jug or two of fresh water. Similiar to the situation in Vukovar, the local hospital was bombed, including the maternity ward, where 14 babies died. During the siege, Bosnians within the city and in the free area outside the siege, worked together and dug a tunnel beneath the UN occupied airport, and were able to slowly bring in supplies, gas, and electricity back to the city. This, accompanied with the unending spirit of the local Sarajevans, allowed them to survive throughout this awful event. Muhamed brought us through town, past dozens of buildings still pock-marked with bullet holes, and sidewalks blown apart by mortars, to the museum at the sight of the tunnel entrance. He explained to us the story of the siege, and what life was like during those years, and I realized how fortunate I really was as a child. When I was ten years old, my biggest problems were arguing over whose turn it was to play nintendo, if my bike got a flat tire, my day was ruined. Muhamed is my age, when he was ten years old, after weeks of restlessness indoors, using a very clever method, snuck out of the house to play in the street. A mortar landed 40 metres from him, and the shrapnel tore open his legs, he showed us the scars. Had he been a few steps closer, he wouldn’t have been there to tell us these stories. This was one of the most humbling moments of my life, and I am grateful to have met Muhamed, and hope to enjoy another beer with him in the future.
Sarajevo is more than just war, though still recovering mentally and very much physically, it is a fascinating, vibrant place with amazing restaurants, cafes, and awesome little tucked away bars. The buildings are beautiful, and the mountains that line the valley show the same incredible scenery as the rest of the countryside. Traffic is minimal, people here smile (a rarity so far in the Balkans), and the growing community of university students is strong, bringing a positive future to this city and country. Though the physical remnants of war still clearly remain, not only here, but in nearly every stop on this journey, it’s uplifting to see that the citizens are proudly moving forward, to a much brighter future.
“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”George Santayana