This is Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina. I've spent a lot of time in Croatia, but this week was my first visit to Bosnia (unless you count 10 minutes along the Dalmatian coastline). Bosnia has stolen my heart and broken it.
It's a beautiful place. You can tell that from the photo above. And it's exotic too. For many centuries, it's been a place where many cultures came together. Although the locals were mostly Slavs, many converted to Islam after the Ottoman Empire conquered the land. Today, slightly less than half of Bosnians are Muslim, and there is definitely an Eastern flavor to the place. Here's a shot of the old town, which dates to the 16th century or so.
There are also large numbers of Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, and Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews have been living there for centuries too. You can hear muezzins and church bells, can peer out a synagogue's windows to see minarets and cathedrals. And you can also see plenty of buildings left over from the Austro-Hungarian and communist Yugoslavia years. It's fascinating.
The people I met in Bosnia were lovely and wonderfully quirky. In the photo above, two teams of men are playing giant chess. My guide said sometimes people bet on the matches. In Sarajevo, you can drink coffee at Club Bill Gates:
Or eat at Kenttucky (sic) Fried Chicken.
The countryside is beautiful too--steep mountains with limestone cliffs, winding rivers, villages with tall haystacks and roadside stands selling honey, cabbages, and oranges. And two hours from Sarajevo is Mostar.
Stunningly beautiful, isn't it?
Food in Bosnia is cheap. I had espresso and a slice of delicious cake for a little over $2. I had a huge plate of burek and a can of Coke for about $3.
People speak a lot of English, and are patient with my pidgin Croatian (which becomes pidgin Bosnian there, because the two languages are almost identical). The locals have a wonderfully dark sense of humor. They smoke too much and drive like they're insane. They drink Bosnian coffee with Turkish delight or baklava. They seemed delighted to show off their country to me.
But then there's the heartbreak part. See that beautiful, famous bridge in Mostar? It was destroyed during the war and had to be rebuilt. Damaged and destroyed buildings are still everywhere in Bosnia. In Sarajevo and Mostar you can't go outside without seeing signs of the war on buildings and sidewalks.
That's an apartment building. You can see where a shell hit it and where the shrapnel sprayed. The only buildings without signs of damage are those built after the war or repaired. Everything else is marked. Sidewalks still have holes. The ones painted red are called Sarajevo Roses--they designate places where people died.
And the people are marked too, although they aren't the least bit bleak. You can see some of what I mean in the top photo I posted, where rows of gravestones in the foreground all date from 1992-1995. That cemetery was once a park. But Sarajevans couldn't leave the besieged city to bury their dead, so they buried them wherever they could.
One of my guides lost his father, stepbrother, grandmother, and all his possessions during the war. The other spent a long time trapped--with 60,000 other people--between two different enemy armies, unable to get food or medical care, watching her hometown being destroyed.
Bosnians like to quote Churchill, who said the Balkans generates more history than it can consume. That breaks my heart. That Bosnians can survive all this with courage, good humor, and graciousness is why my heart's stolen as well.