Sarajevo, Travnik, Jajce & Srebrenica (part four)

I had only been away from Sarajevo for 48 hours – a day less than the entire time I had actually spent in the city – yet returning there from my weekend in Mostar brought with it a feeling that was similar to the one I experience when I have been away from Oban for a while and the bus reaches the top of the Balloch-an-Righ, the main difference being that here I was met with blue skies and a bright sun sitting over the hill.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my time in Herzegovina; more that I really, really liked Sarajevo.  The best thing of comparing it with would be finding that you have developed a crush on the person who you pass on the street every other day, who even seeing for a brief moment somehow makes your day better.  Life doesn’t suddenly become terrible when a few days go by without seeing your street crush, but it just isn’t the same.  That’s how it felt being in Mostar.

Sarajevo was familiar to me.  I knew my way around the city, or at least the parts of it I had been in.  I had my favourite pekara for playing Russian Roulette with the bread, and I knew how to say hello to people in Sarajevo.  Amongst the things I was most looking forward to was getting back to my room in Hostel Franz Ferdinand.  Although the proprietors weren’t the type to pour a rakija for you before check-in and the room was as basic as can be, the people were friendly and I had a private bathroom, meaning that I could once again take a shower in the morning without the concern of becoming overly intimate with the stranger on the other side of the partition.  I picked up a four-pack of Sarajevsko lager from the supermarket on my way to the old town from the railway station with the intention of having a quiet Sunday night in the communal lounge while I caught up with some writing.  There was a part of me that hoped to find another traveller with who I could share my experiences, the way I did the night before I left for Mostar.  But there was only one guy around, and he used the kitchen to make the most pungent meal he could before going to his room.  Instead, I spent the night in my own company, listening to music and drinking beer.  It was just like being home.

My first six days in Bosnia and Herzegovina were spent undertaking vigorous sightseeing, indulging in challenging cevapi consumption, fending off the heat with liquid refreshments, and putting my pigeon knowledge of the language to the test. I deserved a rest; so it was on the seventh day that I didn’t leave the hostel until after 11am. There wasn’t enough time to make my daily trip to the pekara for breakfast, but that didn’t seem so important when I was going to be spending the afternoon taking a food & craft tour around Sarajevo’s old town with Meet Bosnia. The activity was one that I expected would have a lot of interest seeing as it promised a great deal of culture and eating, but I was the only person who had arranged to do it. My guide was Armin, a personable middle-aged woman whose hair was the colour of uncut butternut squash. We spent several hours walking the narrow streets around Baščaršija, where I couldn’t help but wonder what people thought at seeing the pair of us together: Armin the well-prepared, lightly dressed and air-conditioned local alongside me, the Scottish tourist whose face was as pink as the polo shirt that was sticking to his back.

Armin was amiable and well-versed in flattery.  Throughout our walk, she did her best to emphasise how much the Bosnian people appreciate respectful visitors to their country, frequently commenting on how polite, friendly and thoughtful she found me.  Initially, the flurry of compliments left me feeling bashful and had my features turning from pink to red, but over time I began to wonder what it would take to encourage people at home to talk to me like this.  Everyone I met on my tour around the city with Armin was like this; warm and genuine and massaging my tiny ego without even knowing it.  That’s what made the food & craft one of the most valuable things I did during my time in Bosnia:  If I had been visiting these traditional dressmakers, coppersmiths, or rugmakers on my own accord, I would never have been able to communicate with them.  However, with Armin acting as a translator in addition to being a guide, I learned more about what makes this place so unique than I otherwise ever could have.

For instance, I was taken into the back of one of Sarajevo’s last remaining hatmakers, where an elderly man was sitting at a gloomy-looking desk next to a portrait of Tito that could be seen through what was probably a permanent haze of cigarette smoke, carefully stitching a purple ribbon to a piece of felt.  Armin introduced me and presumably told him that I am Scottish, and as he shook my hand he asked when Scotland will become an independent country.  After almost a week of interrogating various locals about the complex political structure in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it surprised me that this little old man in a hat shop in Sarajevo could care about the issue of independence in Scotland, yet he smiled when I told him that I was hoping it would be soon.  Through my guide/translator, I was told that, since the beginning of the war in 1992, the hatmaker has only been able to work seasonally due to the falling demand and the drain on the country’s resources.

It was a similar story in all of the small family-run workshops I visited.  Everyone I spoke to is intensely proud of their craft, their history and their country, but they are not very busy and it is becoming more and more difficult for them to survive.  Young women no longer want to weave rugs, so many of them are now imported from Pakistan.  The female coppersmith I met sells so few of the traditional ibriks [coffee pots] these days that she has been forced to adapt the family business and turn the coffee pots into modern candleholders, though even then she is finding it tough to attract custom.  There is now only one brushmaker in the city; a once thriving trade.  The countryside is full of sheep, just like in Scotland, but few people are willing to farm them.  Many young people do not want to work in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and there is a belief that the government is corrupt and doesn’t do enough to support the struggling traditional sectors.  In 2021 alone, more than 100,000 Bosnians applied for a Visa to work in Germany.  At the same time, the older generation is fearful of another war breaking out soon, fuelled by the recent invasion of Ukraine and Serbia’s close relationship with Russia.  Armin mentioned that her mother, whom she lives with, has already begun stockpiling tinned food and clearing space in the basement of their home in case they need to shelter.   Sometimes your own worries, such as none of your neighbours being willing to take the bins out to the pavement for emptying, or whether Amazon Prime is worth a £79 annual subscription seem trivial when you hear about what other people are going through.

My tour began at a bakery close to the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, where they still give out free bread to the hungry every morning. From there, over the course of around three hours, I ate more food than I could ever imagine. There was a shortbread-like biscuit that was designed for being preserved for months at a time for people who were spending their time working in the hills. I tried cheese burek, some locally-produced acacia honey, a pistachio cream sweet, a large chunk of salty goats cheese that was as big as my fist along with some sliced ham from the market, japrak (grape leaves stuffed with mince and rice), dolma (green pepper stuffed with mince and rice), the traditional and heavenly Bosnian dessert baklava, as well as yet more cevapi at Cevabdzinica Nune. This place is run by the brother of Edin, who operates Meet Bosnia, and has been in their family since 1966. I believe that I had met the entire family by the time I left Sarajevo, which is probably inevitable considering I ate at the restaurant almost every night for the remainder of my trip. They easily serve the best cevapi I tasted in Bosnia & Herzegovina. My opinion was perhaps slightly biased by the fact that I enjoyed one of my few language triumphs in the establishment. As I arrived one evening, an American male who was probably not much younger than I am was placing his order in a manner that seemed to be a pretty good attempt at parroting the archetypal obnoxious American abroad. The young female server walked over to my table next, where the most rudimentary translation of my order would be: “Good evening. May I have cevapi? Ten [the dish is typically served with 10 or 15 pieces of sausage]. Please. Thank you.” There could have been a multitude of reasons for my plate being served before the American’s was, it could have been sheer coincidence, but the fact that it was was enough to have me forking raw onion into my mouth in celebration.

Amidst all of the food I was enjoying on my first day back in Sarajevo, my mind was chewing over a troubling request I had received in the Meet Bosnia office before my food & craft tour began.  Originally I had planned to keep the following day free and to take a trip to the towns of Travnik and Jajce on Wednesday, but when I arrived at the agency on Monday, Medina informed me that there had been an enquiry from another person who was interested in taking the same tour, but that she was only in Sarajevo on Tuesday.  It didn’t make any difference to me which day I went on the tour, and the fact that another person would be there meant that the cost would be halved since it would no longer be just me and the driver, but I was instantly filled with dread.  What if this other mystery solo traveller was Karen from the drive to Mostar?  I wasn’t sure that I could survive a full-day excursion with just the two of us.  Yet there was no way I could refuse.  I’m not sure that anyone could ever say no to Medina, after all.  I was just going to have to cope with the prospect the only way I know how:  by going to the pub.

Six days after my first visit to Gastro Pub Vučko, where my failure to read the Bosnian language menu led to me ordering a pepperoni and mushroom pizza, I returned hopeful that I could impress the barmaid with everything I had learned in the meantime.  I drank in several other bars during my time in Sarajevo, but none of them captured me the way Vučko did, not even The Celtic Pub, which occupies the space next to Cevabdzinica Nune.  The bar had been recommended to me by Mirza on account of its name, though the place struck me as being more of a Scottish-cum-Irish sports bar rather than it claiming any affiliation with my favourite football club.  At least that’s how it seemed to me when I asked the kilted barman if he followed Celtic and he responded that, no, he supported Partizan Belgrade, the Serbian (though at the time Yugoslavian) club who eliminated Celtic from the 1989 European Cup Winners Cup competition on the away goals rule despite famously losing 5-4 in Glasgow.  I mean, come on.  Walking into The Celtic Pub and finding a barman who revels in one of your most gutwrenching calamities was, well, no different to most other bartenders I have encountered over the years.

As fate would have it, the barmaid from my first smoke-filled visit to Gastro Pub Vučko was not on duty when I went in after the food & craft tour.  It was tempting to feel disappointment, even resentment, over the scheduling, but it turned out that the guy who was working behind the bar pouring drinks for the orders being taken by the floor staff was amongst the friendliest of all the friendly people I met in the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  He spoke fluent English, which he learned through listening to rock music by bands such as Queen and U2, as well as helping to translate for soldiers during the war when he was just a teenager.  Things like that are never not jarring when someone says it.  Although many young people have left the country, he stayed and became a qualified physiotherapist, while he still works in the pub to “pay for being a student.”

I visited Vučko on multiple occasions during my second week in Bosnia and Herzegovina, each time hoping to walk in and find the barmaid from that first night, and each time feeling strangely happy to discover that the friendly barman was there instead.  By the end of the week, even the bar staff who couldn’t converse with me in English greeted me as “the Scottish man” when I walked in, which seemed better than the pub titles I am usually bestowed with.  Drinking in here felt just like drinking in Aulay’s, or in the bar of a Ted Danson sitcom, right down to the music that played over the speakers; eighties synths soothing through the place in rhythm with the hops.  Sometimes one of the younger bar crew took control of the system and the typical tracks were replaced with some Yugoslavian rock.  

The young man pointed feverishly to the tiny buttons on my polo shirt as he asked, “do you like?”  I said that I did, but I had no idea what kind of coded message he was trying to communicate through my shirt.

“This is White Button,” [Bijelo Dugme] the English-speaking barman finally interjected having witnessed the sketch play out in front of him. “The biggest band ever to come out of Yugoslavia.” Their song Sve će to, mila moja, prekriti ruzmarin must have played at least once every night I was in that week. I had never heard anything like it before. It is a fantastic song. I didn’t understand a word of it, yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it. One night I asked the barman what the song was about, but I didn’t understand a word of his explanation either. Maybe it was for the best that the mythology I had built up in my mind surrounding the song wasn’t tarnished by learning that the verses were an operatic ode to a man who is sitting on a barstool contemplating a crushing 10-hour car journey with the human form of the Karen meme.

My food and craft tour taught me a lot about Bosnian culture, but there are some things that can only be learned from the other side of a bar.  What I wanted to know most about Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than anything else, was the rakija.  I told the barman about my experience in Mostar the previous weekend, where I arrived at my hostel and was offered a shot of homemade rakija before I had even checked into my room.  “They must have been Serbian,” he correctly identified.  I hadn’t especially cared for their grape distillation, though of course, I could hardly walk into the home of a Serb and tell him that, and wanted something a little mellower.  The barman suggested that I should try plum or honey, but warned that a person should have no more than three or four shots and that these should be taken slowly along with a glass of water.  “With rakija, you will either correct others or connect with them.”  It was a beautiful turn of phrase, and I knew exactly what he meant.  It’s the same when you consume enough of any alcoholic drink, I suppose, but the way the barman spoke it seemed particularly poignant.

All the rakija in the Balkans couldn’t have prepared me for the prospect of spending an entire day travelling through central Bosnia to the historic towns of Travnik and Jajce in a car with Karen.  I felt certain that she was going to be the second tourist in my party of two, and I could already tell that it was going to be the worst day.  The thing about an early morning cup of bitter Bosanska Kafa is that while it is seemingly great at combatting a rakija hangover, there isn’t much it can do to quell anxiety.  I could feel my heartbeat rattling around my ribcage like Sarajevo’s old trams reverberate across its streets as I paced the Meet Bosnia office at eight o’clock waiting for my travel companion to arrive.  Eventually, she made herself known to Aid, our guide for the tour, and I couldn’t have been more relieved to discover that it wasn’t Karen at all, but was actually a young woman who was visiting from Singapore.

Almost immediately, getting into a car with Aid and Liyana felt more like embarking on an adventurous road trip with friends than it did an organised tour.  There was a relaxed vibe among the three of us which made the long journey a breeze.  The atmosphere was so chilled that, in a sense, we could have been three components of a refrigerator assembled in a factory and working together for the first time.  Over a breakfast of uštipci (salty doughnuts served with cream cheese and ham), an hour or so into our drive, we dived into a deep conversation about marriage, and specifically why people such as myself and Liyana are better off out of it.  Aid was curious to know Liyana’s age.  He speculated that she must be around 29, which I immediately recognised as the typical male ruse of purposefully underestimating a female’s age in a thinly-veiled attempt at flattery.  Liyana made a counterproposal, which was to bet that she was the oldest person at the table.  I scoffed, finding that suggestion even more risible than Aid’s:  she clearly was the most fresh-faced of all of us.  In the end, almost predictably, Aid and I were both left looking foolish when Liyana revealed that she is 39 years old, several months older than I am and a few years beyond Aid.  Though I couldn’t help from feeling that the uštipci was probably going to take several years from all of us.

Travnik and Jajce was the tour that I had booked purely to fill a day in my itinerary; mostly because I liked the people at Meet Bosnia and wanted to give them my business. I didn’t know much of anything about the towns we were visiting, but it turns out that they are two of the most culturally significant places in the entire country. Once upon a time, Travnik was the capital of the Bosnian province of the Ottoman Empire. It is also the birthplace of the Yugoslav author Ivo Andric, who won the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature. There are several well-preserved buildings from the era, most impressive amongst them being the 15th-century medieval fortress which rests high above the town. From up there, we were afforded spectacular views of Travnik’s many mosques and its pair of 18th-century clock towers. Liyana and I later discovered that we had, unbeknownst to the other, captured each other in photographs we had taken from either end of the fortress. It’s the sort of thing that, if we were a couple, would make for a stomach-churning post on Instagram, but on this occasion was an amusing coincidence. I told Liyana that I wouldn’t make for a successful criminal getaway guy due to my yellow chinos making me stand out from a great distance, but she responded simply that the trousers suit me. As if I hadn’t already figured it out, it was at this point that I knew I liked Liyana better than Karen from the Mostar trip.

In Jajce, Aid took us to the enormous waterfall dominating the town’s centre.  TLC famously warned against it in their 1994 hit, but I found that in Bosnia and Herzegovina it is impossible not to go chasing waterfalls.  I could swear they are everywhere.  We walked down to the point where the river Pilva collides with the Vrbas river in the most tremendous racket, where many locals were soaking up the June sun in the water.  Liyana had come prepared, her solitary goal for the day being to take a swim in the water.  

Jajce is spectacular. The town has a castle, old fortified city walls, enormous mountains, and deep river valleys. Down the Pilva Lakes, Aid took us to the old watermills where during the Austro-Hungarian period the local farmers ground wheat into flour. The little collection of wooden, windowless huts stand over the gushing water, giving the impression that you are walking through a tiny village in a children’s storybook. Before I came to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I hadn’t given places like this a single thought; all of my excitement was for visiting the two largest cities, Sarajevo and Mostar. That almost made the trip to Travnik and Jajce like discovering some hidden gems, and now I can’t imagine visiting Bosnia and not seeing these places. Of course, it was all the better for having made some new friends along the way.

Aid, Liyana and I exchanged phone numbers when we arrived back in Sarajevo and vowed to keep in touch.  It turned out to be sooner than expected when I next heard from Liyana, but I guess not knowing anybody else in the country will do that.  She had been planning on travelling to Mostar on Wednesday morning but decided that she liked Sarajevo so much that she would stay an extra day, so she messaged later that evening and asked if I would like to do something the next day.  It is so rare for a woman to ever ask me to spend any amount of time in her company that I sat at the bar in Gastro Pub Vučko and messaged just about everyone in my phonebook to ask if I was going on a date.

We agreed that we could convene outside the Meet Bosnia agency where we first met at ten o’clock the following morning and walk out to the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It was nice walking around a foreign city with a complete stranger, because nobody else knew that we weren’t together.  They were as oblivious as I usually am.  For all anybody could tell, we were an actual couple, Instagram and all, on our way to a hot date at the museum like any other pairing.  The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a vast complex situated on the infamous ‘Sniper Alley’ and across the street from the infamous Holiday Inn, which was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics and went on to become the headquarters for international reporters during the conflict in the nineties.  Probably the greatest draw of the museum is that it is home to the 600-year-old Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish manuscript that was smuggled out of Spain as thousands of Jews fled the Inquisition.  The book is so delicate that it can only be displayed to the public for an hour every Tuesday and fourth Saturday, making it nearly as difficult to see as me in the company of a woman.

We spent several hours strolling around the many exhibits in the museum, though we still didn’t cover nearly all of them.  Despite all of the artefacts of interest in the building, perhaps the most interesting sight of all was the American couple who were working their way around the place taking numerous photographs in spite of the many signs stating that photography is forbidden.  The woman was dressed in a long, elegant black gown which had a neckline that plunged deeper than a Bosnian waterfall.  Her outfit was so glamorous that it was as though she had been misinformed about how they were going to be spending their day.  Most of the photographs were of her striking poses next to the ancient second-century Roman gravestones and Iron Age tools.  It’s entirely possible that she was a model on assignment, cast to capture the stories of the encased butterflies, but it was difficult to see how an attractive blonde could make those any more enchanting.

After a long walk back to the old town, where we were on a mission to find a place that would print Liyana’s bus ticket to Dubrovnik for the next morning, we stopped for a doner kebab for lunch.  Liyana had arranged an afternoon coffee with a girl she had met on a walking tour, the sort of backup plan that it is sensible to make when you know you’re going to be spending time in my company.  We parted ways under the belief that we would never see each other again, but I returned from Srebrenica the following evening to a message from Liyana telling me that her bus had never turned up and she was in Sarajevo for another night.  I don’t know if going for dinner with me was much compensation for missing out on a trip to Croatia, but I think we both enjoyed having a dinner companion for a change.  If nothing else, the stray cat who wandered from table to table in the outdoor restaurant welcomed our offerings of veal.

Not for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel that religion was conspiring against my pursuit of romantic relations.  My natural inclination would ordinarily be to try and steer things towards a bar, where alcohol might dull a person’s senses enough to make me appear funny or maybe even attractive.  Liyana, however, was a practising Muslim, and so I was forced to rely on my God-given talents for conversation.  It put me at a real disadvantage.  Not that it really mattered, since Liyana was getting up early to make another attempt to get to Dubrovnik.  With the luck she seems to carry travelling, I said to her as we were leaving that I would probably see her again tomorrow.  She laughed for about as long as I have ever heard anyone laugh at something I have said.  Her laugh was my favourite thing about Liyana.  It sounded like a musical box, where you wind it up and it goes on and on and on.

I was still processing my tour to Srebrenica with Meet Bosnia when I met Liyana for dinner. The town wasn’t a name that meant anything to me before I started researching my trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but as soon as I learned what happened there through books and documentaries I knew that it was important to go. All the books and films in the world can’t prepare a person for a site of mass genocidal killings, though. It’s impossible to comprehend the scale of what happened here on 11 July 1995, even when you can see 8,372 graves sprawling out across the land before your eyes.

At the Srebrenica Memorial Centre, which sits alongside the abandoned UN Base, I couldn’t pinpoint precisely what I was feeling.  The only way I can describe it is as being similar to the sense you have when you leave home and know that you have forgotten to do something, but you can’t think what it is.  Seeing things like the graffiti left on the walls by the UN’s Dutch soldiers who were tasked with protecting the Bosniaks in the so-called “safe area” was haunting.  The entire day left me experiencing a raw mix of sorrow and anger over the lack of action by the UN, who had promised air strikes against the Bosnian Serb aggressors on the morning of the 11th but never sent the planes.  It makes it all the more humbling that people in this country, who have suffered all of that pain and betrayal, are so friendly and welcoming.

Coming soon: Correct or connect (the final part)

Read more about Meet Bosnia’s excursion to Travnik and Jajce here: