I was only meant to stay in Bosnia & Herzegovina for two or three nights. Late in 2019, I began toying with the notion of travelling through the Balkans by train; I would spend a couple of nights in Ljubljana, move on to Zagreb and Split in Croatia before heading for Sarajevo, and ultimately to Belgrade, Serbia – which for a while was the place I most wanted to visit. The entire trip was mapped out in my head, and just as I was readying myself to book it at the beginning of 2020, a large number of people in China developed a cough for undetermined reasons, and the world stood still for the better part of two years. Since the bars and pretty much everything else was closed, I had nothing better to do with my time than to watch YouTube travel vlogs and consume every article conceivable on the adventure I was forced to postpone. The more I watched and read, the clearer it was becoming that Bosnia would demand more of my attention.
For the last few months, I have been met with quizzical expressions whenever I have told someone about my intention to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina for eleven days, as if either to ask why I would want to go there or where the country even is. It is a part of the world that was torn apart by war between the years of 1992 and 1995, after all, and until recently all I knew about Sarajevo was from hearing the besieged city referenced in television news reports from my childhood. I have a vague recollection that we may also have put together food parcels or mentioned the Bosnian people in our prayers at St. Columba’s primary school. If I was being truthful, I would admit to people that I felt a little anxious about making the trip, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Depending on where you look, things in Bosnia are fairly fragile, and it was only recently that a new law was passed that banned the practice of denying the acts of genocide perpetrated by the Serbian army during the war, a move that ruffled the feathers of the secessionist Bosnian Serbs in Republic Srpska. Even on the day I left Oban for an overnight stay in London before my flight, I was checking online to ensure that nothing had changed. But, deep down, after almost two years of isolation and restrictions, I’m not sure that anything would have stopped me from getting on that plane. Life can’t always be black and white, and if you don’t live in the grey, you will never know what colours are out there.
Whilst sitting in Luton airport at seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, I was asking myself why anybody would want to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina. I had been there since at least 5.45 and was feeling the most tired I had ever been. The line in the security hall was like a game of snake that lasts for infinity; the same as when you pick up your phone and decide to play one game before bed and you’re still there an hour later trying to beat your score – it kept going and going. In a welcome change, I passed through the scanner without a hitch. Of course, that had to happen when I didn’t have my brother and sister there capturing it all on camera.
The airport, as anybody knows, is where time goes to die. I was left with almost two hours to wait until boarding for my flight to Sarajevo commenced; it would have been as well being two days. In that time, I browsed the books in three different WH Smith outlets – they were all the same, and none of them stocked the new release I was hoping to find – shopped for aftershave, and ate the worst English breakfast a person has ever encountered. I believe it had the biggest mushroom they could find, planted right in the middle of the plate, while the orange juice was almost the same temperature as the coffee, which wasn’t a compliment for either of them. When the gate number for the flight was finally revealed on the departure board in the manner of the answer to a piece of trivia in a television game show, there turned out to be a reasonably lengthy delay before we were allowed to board. Naturally, I was next in line to the person who was taking this worse than anybody. She couldn’t understand why the airport would announce the departure gate in a way which makes passengers believe they have to drop everything and get there immediately, only to keep us all waiting in a stuffy narrow corridor for what felt like at least as long as a game of snake. It was difficult not to agree with the woman’s point, but she complained about it so much that I couldn’t have any sympathy for her. In fact, I was secretly hoping that we would be delayed a little while longer just to spite her. Eventually, the doors opened and we were led towards the aircraft, and I felt a strange mix of excitement and disappointment.
Much of my trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was organised with the help of the Meet Bosnia tour agency, which I had found during one of my many research rabbit holes. They arranged for one of their drivers to meet me at the airport since public transport is still quite sparse in the country. It was a nice feeling being picked up by an older gentleman holding an A4 piece of paper with my name typed in bold letters across it, just like in the movies. I greeted him with one of the four Bosnian phrases I had been able to learn before arriving – “dobar dan” for hello – and he responded with a string of incoherent words. I looked at him with the same expression I expect I used on the mushroom a few hours earlier, and the driver spoke once more: “I was asking if you speak Bosnian.”
It is difficult to put into words my first impressions of Sarajevo. On the car ride in from the airport, there is immediately a stirring juxtaposition of brand new buildings standing alongside those which are still scarred with bullet holes, if they are standing at all. A sign welcomes you to Sarajevo: “a city under siege for 1425 days.” Then you catch sight of the city itself, emerging like a jewel which is cradled in the bosom of the four Olympic mountains that snuggle Bosnia’s capital. There are red-tiled rooftops as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the innumerable chalk-white gravestones that line the hills. Thick plumes of cigarette smoke cling to every corner. In the Baščaršija [Market Square], the city’s heart beats. There are majestic sights in every direction the head swivels: mosques, synagogues, orthodox churches, and cathedrals live within 200 metres of one another – peacefully until 1992. There are street merchants, people playing music, and a sign advertising draft Sarajevsko beer for the equivalent of £1.34. All of a sudden, the sound of modern techno music which is bouncing across the cobblestones from a nearby coffee shop is drowned out by the beautiful Muslim call to prayer. In the garden of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, the city’s largest, it is an oasis of calm away from the thriving streets outside, where the only sound is birdsong and the constant running of fresh water from the spring. Stray cats are often seen sunbathing here on the wall. Pigeons dominate the square around the Baščaršija’s centrepiece, showing no fear – and why would they when tourists line up to buy boxes of seeds to scatter across the ground? One woman pours the food into her palms and holds out her arms. Soon she is cloaked in pigeons, resembling the heroic old lady found in Central Park in Home Alone 2.
Along the Miljacka River is the impressive City Hall, which was originally constructed in 1894 when Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In time the hall was handed over to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, until Serbian shelling in 1992 caused the destruction of the library and the burning of more than a million books. The building was restored to its original design in 2014 and is now a national monument, and it’s easy to see why. It is a beautiful sight. A walk further beyond the City Hall took me to the Latin Bridge, which is infamously the location where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on 28 June 1914. Exactly one month later, the First World War began, sparked by the killing. Almost 90 years after that, the indie Scottish band Franz Ferdinand released their hit song Take Me Out, which was the cause of countless spillages of Jack Daniel’s on the dancefloor in O’Donnell’s Bar when the chorus kicked in. It was quite the thing to be standing on that very same bridge 18 years on from those nights.
After a few hours of drinking in the sights of the Old Town and fending off the heat with my first pint of £1.34 (3 BKM) Sarejevsko, which is the locally brewed pilsner lager, I ventured to Gastro Pub Vučko – Vučko being the cartoon wolf who served as the mascot when Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. The bar specialises in craft beer, and their house offering, Vučko Red, tasted similar to one of my favourite Brewdog beers, 5AM Saint, which was one of my favourite cultural discoveries of the day. Sitting at the bar was a surreal experience, and not only because I was the only person who wasn’t taking advantage of the table service. It was like being back in a pub in Scotland on 25 March 2006; the day before the national ban on smoking indoors came into effect. Everyone in Bosnia smokes like it’s punctuation. As soon as a sentence finishes another cigarette is lit. This all still happens indoors, which meant that by the time I arrived back at my hostel five hours later, my clothes were reeking of tobacco. If I could never wear that shirt again from the sweat I had soaked into it earlier in the day, I definitely couldn’t now.
The smoking didn’t bother me, though. Really, it was just the opposite of being at home where anyone who wants to smoke has to go outside; whereas in Bosnia if I am craving a fix of fresh air it is me who needs to step outside. It is around eight years since I last had a cigarette, but it was nice to feel as if I had inhaled an entire packet without having to do any of the hard work. My real problem was with language. The smoking barmaid was friendly and had a very decent grasp of English – much better than her colleagues, certainly. She smiled when, as I ordered my third or fourth Vučko Red, I attempted to add the word “molim” (please) to my infant vocabulary, even after I had to ask her if I was using it correctly. Indeed, so happy was she with my introduction of molim to our rudimentary interaction that a few minutes later a second beer appeared next to the one I had just bought. Of course, it was probably her way of reeling a fish in from the end of the line, knowing that I couldn’t possibly not buy another drink after receiving one for free, but it felt nice all the same. All I could imagine was the scene in Aulay’s if the bar staff could smoke behind the bar whenever they liked, poured themselves a shot on a whim and handed out free beer to any stranger simply for saying please.
My episode with the Bosnian language came before I received a free pint of Vučko. Although the Smoking Barmaid was very pleasant and understanding, I felt reluctant to test her patience when it came to ordering food. The menu in front of me was printed entirely in Bosnian, which is to be expected when a person is in Bosnia. I had already achieved my goal of trying Ćevapi earlier in the day, so I wasn’t too concerned about eating anything ‘local’, I just wanted some pub food to eat with my beer. I scanned the pages of the menu looking for familiar words, though other than the subheadings such as burger, chicken, pasta, and pizza, it was difficult to make head or tail of it. Faced with such a daunting dilemma, the most simple option to my mind seemed to be to go with the pepperoni pizza. You know what you’re getting with a pepperoni pizza. There can be no surprises. I felt pretty good about my decision, and when I saw the enormous wooden board arrive sometime later with a pizza the size of a pillow, my mouth was beginning to water the way every other part of my body had been in the afternoon sun. Then I saw them, scattered all over the dish in the most indiscriminate fashion possible. Mushrooms. Tiny little pieces of the things; everywhere. I didn’t know what I could do. I baulked just looking at the atrocity. It was right up there with the biggest blunders I have ever made, but I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t my fault. There was a “fungi” pizza listed on the menu, after all. Surely that’s where all the mushrooms would go? Ultimately I had no choice but to eat the pepperoni with mushroom pizza, lest I look like an idiot in front of the Smoking Barmaid. She already knew that I didn’t have a clue how to speak Bosnian, of course, but I had gone to such great lengths perusing the menu that I couldn’t possibly back out.
The mushroom incident was still fresh in my conscience when I went to the Meet Bosnia agency the next day for the first of the tours I had booked through them. During the period of planning my trip, and the anxiety which followed the Russian assault on Ukraine, the people from Meet Bosnia were extremely helpful and reassuring. It would be impossible for me to go overboard with my praise of Sejla, who helped prepare my itinerary in the months leading to my journey, and Medina, who looked after me in the weeks before I arrived and kept in touch with me while I was in the country. They made what could have been – and at times was – a daunting trip remarkably comfortable. I spent the morning learning the phrase “drago mi je” (nice to meet you), reciting it in my head as I walked to the mosque to top up my bottle with fresh water. It seemed the least I could do after all the help they had offered me. Somehow, implausibly, everyone at Meet Bosnia was even more beautiful in person, and I melted (though unfortunately, Sejla had left her job before I arrived in the country.) Medina asked me whether I would like to sit and wait in the office for 15 minutes until the driver who was taking us on our tour out to the Tunnel of Hope arrived or if I would prefer to go for a walk. I told her that since I am Scottish and already struggling with the sunshine I would take advantage of the cool space while I could, however, she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. But then, why would a young Bosnian woman know about the stereotype surrounding Scottish people with our milky sun-averse skin? How could she possibly have known that by two o’clock I had already topped up my Factor 50?
I am learning new things each time I walk around Sarajevo. For example, the Clock Tower in Baščaršija is the only public clock in the world that shows lunar time in line with the Muslim Maghrib prayer, which is said at sunset and marks the beginning of a new day. It needs to be reset manually. The city had Europe’s first tram system, on account of the Austro-Hungarian rulers using Sarajevo as a trial site for the new transport network before introducing it to cities such as Vienna and Budapest. All around the streets, it is difficult not to notice the blood-red craters which mark the pavements. These are Sarajevo Roses, seen on the spots where a mortar shell has exploded and killed at least three people. There was an average of 330 mortar strikes launched on Sarajevo every day of the siege, and the way the bombs fell on the ground is said to resemble a rose. After the war ended, the concrete scars were filled with red resin to leave a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives at that particular place. There are approximately 200 roses around the city. As well as all of that, legend has it that whoever drinks water from the Sebilj [historical fountain] in Baščaršija will be destined to return to Sarajevo. It’s one of those folk stories that sounds really silly when you hear it as an outsider, but you can’t help yourself from wishing it to be true.
One of the routines I very quickly established after arriving in Sarajevo was to make an early morning trip to the Pekara (bakery) to purchase a couple of pieces of bread to take and eat with a Bosnian coffee at a cafe in Baščaršija. I never thought that coffee was something I would need to be taught how to drink, but on one of my tours with Meet Bosnia I was forced to ask the guide to demonstrate the proper technique for drinking the stuff. When you order Bosanska Kafa, you are brought a copper tray that has the thick, dark coffee in the ibrik (a little pot), alongside a tiny mug and another pot which contains a handful of sugar cubes and sometimes a Turkish delight. It isn’t immediately obvious how one is supposed to consume the beverage. I had spent many minutes researching the various techniques before I left for Bosnia and learned that people have different ways of drinking their coffee. Some folk put a piece of sugar in the mug and pour the coffee over it; others dunk a cube into the coffee and bite it; some hold a small bit of sugar underneath their tongue as they take a mouthful of kafa. It’s all to take away from the bitterness of the beverage. I think I tried them all before deciding that I didn’t enjoy consuming whole cubes of sugar with my breakfast.
My pigeon Bosnian was making the trip to the Pekara a real game of Russian Roulette. I don’t have the ability to read the small ingredient cards in front of each item, and whereas in most bars or restaurants you can usually find at least one person who has really good English, it seems to be a condition of employment in the bakery that the staff only speak the local language. Honestly, I reckon the women behind the counter in these places could get anyone to confess to a crime they haven’t committed with just a glance. Each morning I go in there, I just decide what looks good in the moment and point at it, hoping for the best. As a result, I have eaten some salty pretzel-like bread; pastry filled with chocolate, apple, and even tuna. Everything I have eaten from a Pekara has been tasty, but you are always left with the feeling that one of these days the gamble could go horribly wrong, like ending up with mushrooms on a pepperoni pizza.
Finding the best bread to eat for breakfast was surely not very high up on the list of priorities for the citizens of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995, if it ever has been. When Armin hosted our ‘Fall of Yugoslavia’ tour, it quickly became clear how little a piece of bread can mean, even one that has been stuffed full with tuna. Our first stop was at the city’s former maternity hospital, which had been deliberately targetted and destroyed by the Bosnian Serb army during the war, when it was still a functioning facility, in an act that was termed “the battle of the babies.” I don’t know that there’s anything more chilling than seeing an old maternity hospital reduced to an abandoned, bullet hole-ridden wreck. In Oban, ours has become a boutique hotel, but even £295 per night for a sea view in Greystones seems like something you can stomach in comparison.
Following the tour that took us high up into the Trebević Mountain, where the disused bobsleigh track from the 1984 Winter Olympic Games lies decorated with graffiti, as well as out to the Tunnel of Hope – the tunnel dug underneath the airport that was the only means which allowed goods and weapons to be brought into Sarajevo during the almost four-year siege, and where I learned the benefits of wearing a safety helmet – I got talking to the man who happened to be the Aulay of Valter 071 pub, though in this case he was named Vladimir, or Vlad to his friends. You wouldn’t have known that he was the owner of the bar from the way he was sitting outside drinking beer and chain-smoking with his friend, but I suppose that’s just what happens in Sarajevo. He was surprised when I told him that I was visiting Sarajevo for 11 days. “Why? Nobody comes here for more than two or three days.”
Early in our interaction, Vlad mentioned that he fought in the war, which surprised me a little since he didn’t look any older than I am. “I picked up a rifle for the first time aged 15,” he told me between drags on his cigarette. It turns out that his father was fairly high up in the newly-formed Bosnian army when the siege began, and he was wounded three times while fighting. I asked Vlad where his father was wounded, thinking it was an innocent enough question. He rhymed off the names of three cities or small villages whose names were too difficult for me to write down, however, I had been wanting to know where on his father’s body he suffered his injuries.
Over another beer, Vlad described how he and his father are reluctant to talk these days about politics and their experiences in the war as they often have disagreements over the direction of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I wanted to tell him that I feel the same way when I am sitting in Wetherspoons with my dad and brother and the conversation inevitably turns to politics, but somehow that seems different to what he was talking about. The bar owner was at pains to deny being “Yugo-nostalgic”, although he went on to speak fondly of the way things were pre-1992, which isn’t any different to the way anybody else feels about their childhood. I don’t know if Yugo-nostalgia is such a terrible thing or not, but Vlad is not the only person I have met in Sarajevo who remembers the days of Tito with affection. I liked Vlad, but I found myself questioning whether I should have another beer with him when he complained that “everything here is for the fucking Muslims” – although it turned out that his wife is Muslim, so maybe he was just upset that he wasn’t allowed to watch the Bosnia versus Finland Nations League game the night before.
Vlad’s claim was that until 2016, everybody would practice their religion in their own homes and not in public; presumably a reference to the volume of women you see in Sarajevo wearing the hijab. I found it hard to believe. It is counter to everything I have read about the place in my research before coming here, but then Vlad has lived in Sarajevo all his life and fought for the city, so what would I know? I drank one more beer with him and promised that I would be back at his bar before I leave. You have to live some of your life in those grey areas to find some of the colour, after all, and after just a couple of days, I already had a sense that there is a lot of colour to be found in Sarajevo.
My time in Bosnia and Herzegovina wasn’t entirely spent eating cevapi, drinking the local beer and inhaling a lifetime’s supply of second-hand smoke, even if at times it seemed that way. Sarajevo has many museums and sights of cultural significance to explore when one is riding the buzz from a pot of Bosnian coffee or seeking shade from the rising temperatures on an afternoon. For the extreme thrillseekers, perhaps those who are visiting the area during the winter months for the thriving ski opportunities on the Olympic mountains, a walk up the city’s many steep hills can provide as much adrenaline as any Jason Statham movie. While Sarajevo’s heart beats in Baščaršija, its life is in the hills, where ironically thousands of its people are buried. The slopes are steep, narrow, and winding; built primarily for horses back in the days when popular modes of transport had four legs rather than four wheels. It seems miraculous that there aren’t more accidents the way cars whizz up and down the single-track inclines. Somehow the drivers of both vehicles are able to slam on the breaks right before the moment of impact, as though there is a sixth sense to driving in Sarajevo. Often just watching the vehicles is as nerve-rattling as being in one.
While there are museums catering for all manner of interests, such as the Olympic Museum which recounts the 1984 Winter Olympics and was recently reopened after being destroyed by the Bosnian Serb aggressors; Muzej Sarajeva, dedicated to the events surrounding the outbreak of the First World War and found on the street corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated; the Sevdah Art House for an insight into sevdalinka [traditional urban love songs] and their famous singers, I spent much of my time in the museums which dealt with the impact of the 1992-1995 war. These places are crucial to visit if you wish a better understanding of the country Bosnia is today. If buildings could talk, many of them in Sarajevo would also weep from the horrors they have suffered, but places such as the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide can at least tell their stories for them.
I visited the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide on my second morning in Sarajevo. There weren’t many people inside when I arrived, and initially, I wondered if the name was holding it back. You could see why tourists might prefer to eat gelato and listen to the performers on the street nearby. The exhibits and stories within the space are stomach-churning. What the museum does effectively is not to overwhelm the visitor with numbers and figures, but rather it presents written stories from victims of the war alongside personal belongings that have either been donated by survivors of the genocide or recovered from mass graves. Many of the accounts are devastating, the sort of thing most minds couldn’t possibly imagine, and from the next room where a film was being screened, I could hear a woman sob. I spent between two and three hours in the museum, but even that doesn’t begin to answer how people can inflict some of these acts on another human. It is simultaneously the best museum I have ever visited and also the most terrible.
If there is one thing that could lift my spirits after reading about the horrors of ethnic cleansing, I felt certain that it would be a visit to the Sarajevo Brewery. It was never my intention to go to the brewery, but after Edin told our group on the free walking tour the previous day about how it was the only source of water for many Sarajevans during the siege, and since I wasn’t really in the mood for anything else following my visit to the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, I decided to go across the bridge and walk towards the brewery’s distinctive red brick chimney. I was hoping that there might have been a big tour around the historic facility showing groups of visitors how Sarajevsko lager is produced, but it turns out that they don’t offer such a thing, and the bar and restaurant that used to operate next door has been closed since the pandemic. As it goes, the museum was no bigger than my living room – where people can at least watch beer being consumed – and it cost 10BKM [approximately £5] to get in. It must have taken me ten minutes to look around the exhibits, which were comprised mostly of newspaper cuttings and empty bottles, but I stayed for around twenty-five since I had paid for it and was feeling awkward about leaving when I was the only person there. During the entire duration of my visit, I could hear the young woman at the ticket desk eating potato chips and watching what sounded like a Bosnian sitcom on her phone. At times, I couldn’t focus on the exhibits for wondering what flavour the crisps were. It was surreal, but I suppose at least one of us was getting something from our afternoon there.
My intention was to enjoy a relatively relaxed evening on Thursday since I was due to take a trip to Mostar at eight o’clock the following morning with Meet Bosnia, but a sorrowful morning spent at the war crimes museum and an underwhelming afternoon in the Sarajevsko Brewery left me craving more. In an effort to fill the void, I tried Bosnia’s other national dish, burek, for the first time. It is simply thin filo pastry filled with meat. In other Balkan countries, as well as in Turkey, burek refers generally to the pie and you would ask for it with whichever filling you desire, but a burek in Bosnia is specifically a meat pie, while other varieties such as cheese, potato, spinach, or pumpkin have their own names. The taste reminded me of a Scottish bridie but without the onions. I liked it well enough, though it has nothing on the cevapi. As it is prone to do, beer follows beef, and soon enough I found myself drinking at the appropriately named Dilema Pub. This establishment presumably thought very carefully about whether or not to keep the additional letter ‘m’ from the English translation.
As the name above the door implied, I was tempted by the bar’s cheap offerings, but at the same time mindful of the long journey ahead of me, and I returned to my accommodation at Hostel Franz Ferdinand before 11 pm. There, I found an Irishman and German-Bosnian woman drinking cans of beer in the communal area, and I remembered how life is often an ongoing dilemma. I continued on to my room, where I ditched my backpack and dried the river of sweat from my forehead, before returning to the lounge and asking if anyone had a Sarajevsko they could spare. The three of us sat until the small hours putting the world to rights. The Irishman was older than us, probably in his late forties or early fifties and travelling the region by bicycle, while the German-Bosnian was younger and was hoping to find the best way of confronting her strict Bosnian-Serb parents with the details of genocide she had learned while in Sarajevo; information they have previously denied. More than anything, I marvelled listening to two strangers who had only met in the hostel the day before yet seemed like good friends talk about their experiences travelling. In particular, the Irishman, whose head was as smooth as the taste of a Sarajevsko lager, was a seasoned traveller. It always seemed ridiculous to me the way that people can seemingly afford to spend their life going from country to country, often waking up one morning in Bosnia and deciding that they will take a bus to Montenegro on the spur of the moment, but if you are able to do it, I can’t think of a good reason why anyone wouldn’t travel. I felt quite sheepish when the Irishman segued from one of his anecdotes to ask where I had been before arriving in Sarajevo and the best I could come up with was that I had once been to a gig in Milton Keynes, had most recently taken a bus tour of Belfast, and visited New York City a couple of times. I confessed that I didn’t know if I could ever do the professional traveller thing like he does, but I already knew after three days in Sarajevo that my life had changed, I just wasn’t yet sure how.
Despite the late night, I woke up fresh for my journey to Mostar, where I had arranged to spend the weekend. Our tour group for the day was an eclectic mix comprised of an older Norwegian couple, some fresh-faced Austrians who came along with an elderly Bosnian woman they seemed to know, a Spanish woman who now lives in the United States, along with our fearless and stylish driver and guide Kenan, who was surely the rock star tour guide of Meet Bosnia. As the drive into Herzegovina unfolded, it was becoming obvious that the Spaniard is the first person I have met who has perfectly personified the “Karen” social media meme made popular during the Covid lockdown. You could tell she was going to be trouble from the moment the tour left the agency and Kenan had to drive all the way up into the steep hills to find her rented accommodation, which must have been on the narrowest street in Eastern Europe. It’s not that she didn’t think to come down to meet the eight-seater car at a more convenient spot, but rather that when she got inside the large vehicle she spent ten minutes complaining about how awkward it is staying in an apartment up there since the buses and even some taxis don’t come that far into the hills. I could only think that it was similar to a remarkably successful psychic who has a powerful premonition about ending up with a horribly disfigured arm but goes ahead with the “advanced chainsaw operation for novices” class nonetheless.
Karen had a contrary statement about everything. When we stopped in Jablanica for some brunch, where they are famed for making roasted lamb sandwiches, she insisted that she didn’t feel like eating because she’d enjoyed a large breakfast, but was unhappy that we wouldn’t have another opportunity for food until the early evening. Kenan suggested that she could order a sandwich to have wrapped for later in the day, but she didn’t like that option either. The guide went to great lengths to explain how we were driving around the outskirts of Mostar on our way to visit some other small towns and would return to the city as our final stop. After all of this, Karen piped up and asked, “why do people visit Mostar? It looks boring.” It was the equivalent of joining a book club and turning up to the meeting to discuss Moby Dick and all you have to say is, “why do people read this book? The cover looks boring.”
It was the same everywhere we went. In Kravice, where they have one of the largest waterfalls in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and surely the most impressive, Karen refused to pay the entrance to see the natural wonder up close because she had already been to the Niagara Falls. When we arrived in Mostar, we had the incredible fortune of getting onto the shore just as one of the professional jumpers was preparing to dive from the rebuilt 16th Century Ottoman Stari Most [Old Bridge] into the Nerveta river 20 metres below. The leap requires a great deal of training from a young age, and before each one, a couple of fellow divers walk between the crowds gathering on the bridge and below seeking donations to make the risk worthwhile. They won’t make the jump until they have earned enough money. Most people put their hands in their pockets seeking spare change, but not Karen. She had already seen people make a much more dangerous dive from a bridge in Mexico. Honestly, I don’t know how Kenan put up with it. His patience was admirable when it would surely have been easier to crash down on her like a cascading waterfall. The best of it is that, since we were the only two solo travellers in the group, Karen spent a lot of her time talking to me. I mean, Karen clearly wasn’t a bad person and she was probably just misunderstood, but there were times during the day when I would have rathered be stood next to the woman from the departure gate at Luton Airport.
Aside from Karen, our drive to Mostar was spectacular. While I had been struggling with the temperatures which were in the mid-to-high twenties in Sarajevo, you could immediately feel a change when we moved into Herzegovina. The mercury climbed at least another six degrees. It is said that in some parts of the region there are as few as 40 days of rain in the year. Even in a comfortable, air-conditioned car, I was beginning to worry that factor 50 wasn’t going to be enough to soothe my vulnerable Scottish skin. Some of the water in the rivers we saw along the way were so blue that it appeared green. I’ve never seen a colour like it, not even on the faces of passengers travelling in a car through Sarajevo’s hills.
It often seems that every town in this country has its own beautiful bridge, and one of my favourites was in Konjic. It isn’t as immediately striking or famous as the old bridge in Mostar, but it rests beneath a postcard backdrop – or I suppose, for the internet generation, an Instagrammable setting. Like so many old structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has recently been rebuilt after standing for centuries until being destroyed by the war, though in the case of Konjic’s Old Stone Bridge, it was brought down by retreating Nazi occupiers at the end of the Second World War. In Počitelj, we were taken to an imposing Ottoman-era fortress village, while in Blagaj at the spring of the river Buna, Kenan showed us the historical Tekke [Dervish monastery] built around 1520 at the foot of a mighty cliff. It’s the kind of thing that can really make a person’s jaw detach from the rest of their face, and all I could think was how much I wanted to tell the Irishman from the hostel about how I had finally seen something in the world, but I knew that he would be halfway to Montenegro or Albania by then.
After a pleasant dinner with the rest of the group in Mostar, we parted ways as they drove back to Sarajevo while I went in search of the Downtown Hostel, where I would be staying for a couple of nights. It wasn’t very far at all from the city’s old town, although when I arrived, I wasn’t immediately confident that I’d gone to the right place. Upon opening the outer door, I walked into what appeared to be the garden of a family home. Sitting at the table by the porch was a couple not much older than I am, alongside another man, an elderly woman and a young toddler who was rampaging around the place. They were all smoking cigarettes and drinking Sarajevsko lager and grape rakija. I stopped in my tracks, convinced that I must have made a mistake. My pigeon Bosnian could barely flap out of my mouth to say hello, but the wife recognised from my enormous backpack that I had arrived to check in. As was so often the case during my time in Bosnia, my “dober dan” elicited a string of incomprehensible words in return. I imagine that my face took on the same kind of blank expression that Karen’s had earlier in the day when she was staring at the Kravice waterfall and thinking of the Niagara Falls.
I held up my hands and confessed that I had only really learned four essential words of Bosnian ahead of my trip – those for hello, please, thank you, and beer. It was my favourite joke to use once I was confident that people could grasp my Scottish brogue. The woman laughed and called back outside to her husband. “This guy says he only knows four Bosnian words,” she said as she marched me back to the table. She encouraged me to repeat what I had told her, and the entire table was soon in uproar. Her husband, who was sitting with his cousin, pulled a can of Sarajevsko lager from the plastic ring and asked me if I would like to have a drink. I told him that I wouldn’t say no, “mostly because I don’t know what your word for no is.”
Before I had even been shown to my room in the hostel, which essentially seemed to be a family home that had been partially converted into accommodation for travellers, I was sitting at the table by the porch with the entire family, drinking a can of beer and being poured a measure of grape rakija, which was apparently homemade. The two cousins were fantastically welcoming, and it didn’t take long for me to feel as though I was drinking amongst friends at home. They bantered back and forth about a story that was obviously a favourite of theirs, where the husband of the household had bought a wood-burning stove from his cousin and installed it in the smallest room of his home. The trouble is that the stove was so large that having it on for even just a few minutes made the room unbearably hot. After a while, the husband just couldn’t take it anymore and decided to sell the stove, much to his cousin’s amusement. “He’s the only person in Bosnia who has ever complained about having too much heat,” he laughed.
They bickered over the details of the story, and the husband felt that he was being hard done to by his cousin’s recollection of events. His cousin argued that the way he tells it makes it funnier and more memorable. I could see both sides of the dispute. I had sympathy with the husband since he was clearly me in Aulay’s on a Friday night; but at the same time, every funny anecdote needs a sucker who does something stupid, whether it’s buying a wood-burning stove that is much too big for your home, or spending 10BKM to look at a collection of empty beer bottles.
I just loved watching the family dynamic and being invited to be a part of it. I no longer felt like I was on holiday; this was everything the folks in the hostel in Sarajevo were talking about. The husband equalled the point-scoring when he reminded his cousin that he had been born in Serbia, while the cousin was only Bosnian-Serb. I was curious to know how people in Mostar feel about their compatriots in Sarajevo, explaining the way that there is a rivalry between those living in Scotland’s two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow. I was told, simply, that “in a thousand years’ time, people in Sarajevo will still be telling everybody else about the 1984 Winter Olympics.”
With a bellyful of rakija, I finally checked into my modest room and headed back out into the old town of Mostar. Down by the Stari Most where I had earlier watched a man plummet straight into the river, a small stand was selling Mostarsko Pivo [beer] on draft. It seemed the ideal spot for me to unpack the first few hours of my Herzegovina experience. A local radio station pumped hit songs from the eighties into the darkening June sky: Is This Love; Total Eclipse of the Heart; Moonlight Shadow. Couples sat on the rocks next to the unflinching Nerveta River drinking bottles of wine. Groups of teenage girls laughed from striped deck chairs. Usually, my Friday nights are spent standing by the ice box in Aulay’s, getting banter from Amanda, trying to catch Sammy’s eye, and putting up with the Plant Doctor’s terrible jokes. But on this occasion, I was drinking beer while looking at a UNESCO World Heritage site. If Sarajevo was life in the fast lane, then this was very much living in the slow lane.
Around 16 miles southwest of Mostar lies the town of Medjugorje, which until 24 June 1981 was considered little more than an insignificant village. Even today, according to the most recent census, the town has a population of only 2,265. Yet in the last forty years, thousands of hotel rooms have been constructed to help meet the demands of up to a million visitors annually. Medjugorje is said to have the most overnight stays in Bosnia and Herzegovina. All of this because on that day in 1981, six youths aged between ten and sixteen years old were walking in the hills, talking, herding sheep, collecting apples, and smoking when a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared before them. Our Lady of Medjugorje, as the apparition came to be known, told some of the youngsters ten secrets that have yet to be revealed, while several of the seers claim to still receive apparitions to this day, often daily. Subsequently, the town was officially recognised as a pilgrimage site by the Catholic Church in 2019.
I was recovering from my first experience drinking rakija when I woke up on Saturday morning to take my own trip to Medjugorje. Truthfully, I had never heard about the events of 1981 before my friends at Meet Bosnia suggested that I could spend a day at a vineyard in the region and I began reading about it. I was enraptured and stunned – who knew that Bosnia and Herzegovina produces wine? My room in the family home-cum-hostel was at the top of the stairs, while the private bathroom was situated in the hallway downstairs. The family lives in a separate building, so when I ventured down to wash in the morning, it felt as though I had the run of the place. Three doors were lined up one next to the other, with my key being for bathroom number two. Inside, there was everything a person could need in a bathroom: a shower, toilet, and wash hand basin; all in a space that is smaller than my bathroom at home, which until then is the smallest I have ever used.
I started brushing my teeth at the sink when I became aware of the sound of running water coming from the next private bathroom, not unlike the steady stream of the Kravice waterfall the day before. It turns out that the rooms are separated by a thin layer of plasterboard, with a gap of around a foot between the top of the partition and the ceiling. I froze, paralysed by the realisation that there was a person taking a shower on the other side of the wall from me. My toothbrush was clenched between my jaws, blue paste foaming over my bottom lip. From the next bathroom, I could hear excruciatingly loud gasps broken by the water, as though a man was being subjected to a round of water torture. For some reason, he sounded Swedish to me, though I had nothing to go on but the sound of him gasping for air. I don’t know why I felt compelled to stand motionless by the sink, toothbrush in mouth, until this other man had left his private bathroom, but for a while, it is the closest I have come to taking a shower with another person.
When I eventually felt comfortable enough to shower by myself, I was refreshed and reinvigorated, ready to make my pilgrimage to Medjugorje. The driver from Meet Bosnia was due to collect me at nine o’clock, so I had time to go to a nearby pekara and play Russian Roulette with the baked goods. I believe it was on this occasion that I got the chocolate filling. Back at the hostel, I had been looking forward to enjoying my pastry with a cup of instant coffee, but I couldn’t figure out how to work the kettle. It didn’t matter what I tried, the thing wouldn’t boil. After all the complexities of trying to figure out the correct etiquette when drinking Bosnian coffee, this should have been a doddle. Instead, the only steam was figurative and coming from my ears. Still, I suppose it wasn’t the worst thing to have happened that morning.
Mirza arrived exactly on schedule, though I was only aware of his presence when I heard him and the elderly woman from the family who runs the hostel engaged in an animated discussion in the garden. Amidst their fluent Bosnian, the driver mentioned “42 Combie Street”, and it occurred that it would have been a heck of a coincidence if the street I lived on in Oban was also an address in Mostar. I introduced myself to Mirza, and we began our journey to the holy pilgrimage town of Medjugorje. He is an older man who has decided to spend his final working years before retirement as a tour guide. We enjoyed a good conversation along the way, bonding mostly over subjects such as the best bars to visit in Sarajevo and football, which very nearly led to me offering an apology for the fact that my team, Celtic, had beaten his favourite club, FK Sarajevo, three times in the last two years. What I felt most sorry about, however, was the fact that Mirza had left Sarajevo at 6.30am to come and pick me up. He insisted that he didn’t mind the journey, but all I could think was that soon he would be watching me drink four glasses of wine at a vineyard and then having to deal with that for the rest of the afternoon.
I found Mirza to be a lovely and fascinating gentleman, even when I was forced to stop myself from laughing when he asked if I was aware that Sarajevo had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. He had a very particular policy whereby his car is the one place he refuses to smoke, which struck me as being unusual for a Bosnian since they smoke everywhere else. According to Mirza, most Bosnian people aren’t especially troubled by the cost of everyday essentials like bread, milk, or gas, whereas if anyone thought of increasing the price of cigarettes – which are widely available for 5BKM [£2.11] for a packet of 20 – “there would be riots.” I learned a lot about the importance of cigarettes in the Bosnian culture. Mirza said that they saved his life in the war; that he just couldn’t have gone through that without being able to smoke. Instead of being paid a monetary wage during the siege of Sarajevo, most people were given cigarettes for their work, which could then be traded for other goods. The first thing Mirza did whenever we left the car was to light a cigarette, and I could understand why.
When we arrived in Medjugorje just before ten o’clock, the sun was beating down on the little town. If God truly was looking over this place and sending the mother of Jesus to pass messages to its children, then he clearly wasn’t giving a fuck about my skin. Mirza invited me to take a wander on my own for a while, so I walked down what appeared to be the town’s main street. On either side of the road were tiny shops selling religious souvenirs. Next to “The Rosary Shop” was a store selling candy, and on the other side stood a place selling replica football strips bearing the names of players such as Lionel Messi or Karim Benzema. It goes to show that, for different people, salvation can be found in many places. Some seek spirituality in a church, others in a sweet jar, while some find it in their favourite football team. Though I’m sure that isn’t the point that was being made.
At the end of the road was the Church of Saint James the Greater, an impressive twin-towered Cathedral that, for some reason, had a clock on each tower. The grounds were busy with worshippers who either funnelled inside for the service that was about to begin or posed for a selfie at the foot of the statue of the Virgin Mary in the garden. My main purpose was neither, instead attracted by the fountain which was offering fresh water. As I topped up my bottle under the tap, a voice whispered out from the loudspeakers on the side of the church building. It was soft and American, maybe what you’d expect of a voice from above in a Hollywood movie, but not in real life in Bosnia. The voice suggested that it is time for people to stop seeing Medjugorje as a pilgrimage, which seemed like an odd statement for a priest to be making to what I assumed was a full congregation inside the church, no different to a chef coming out and announcing to his restaurant that folk should no longer see dinner as a big meal. The voice continued, “and somewhere to top up your tan.” I peeled the polo shirt from my back, took a long gulp of cold water, and considered what it would feel like to have a tan that could be topped up, as opposed to spending my entire time in Bosnia a hot mess.
After a few minutes of reflection on the steps in front of the cathedral, I left to find Mirza, who was enjoying a cigarette in the shade of a coffee shop. Even by eleven o’clock, the temperature was crawling into the mid-thirties, and I think even Mirza was struggling with it. He asked if I was wanting to climb Apparition Hill to the site of the visitations from the Virgin Mary, which he reckoned would take around an hour to get up and back down again. I could hardly even feign enthusiasm for the idea. Given the option, I would probably have chosen to go back to the private bathroom in the hostel rather than climb a hill in thirty-degree heat. “Are you sure?” Mirza asked, probably wondering why someone would come all the way to a pilgrimage town without going on the actual pilgrimage. “Can’t we just sit here and drink coffee?” I whined.
Besides, we had an appointment at the vineyard, and while I have heard of water being turned into wine, I don’t believe there’s anything they can do with body sweat. I was surprised to see how vast the fields filled with grapes were in Herzegovina. To me, it felt as though we were driving through them for miles to reach Vinogradi Nuić, which was fairly remote from civilisation. The family endeavour began planting vines in 2004, and they have ambitious plans to expand their site with a full visitor centre and restaurant. The brothers took me around the facility, describing in tremendous detail the process of producing wine, from grape to glass, all within their philosophy of following nature and her laws without exploiting the soil. What struck me most was the pride they have in their work, although it was the same everywhere I went in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have never met people who have more pride in their country than the Bosnians have.
Finally, we were led back outside to the front of the building, where there was a table that was going to serve as our tasting station. Mirza reached for his cigarettes, while I reached for my notebook, something that was effectively going to be my crutch as I looked to put on a front by making everybody else believe that I know what I’m doing when it comes to drinking wine. The brothers brought out four of their favourite wines for me to enjoy a glass of with them, along with a plate of locally-produced sheep’s cheese. With our table looking out across vines as far as the eyes could see, on the horizon was a group of mammoth hills, the other side of which was Croatia. It is the most serene and exquisite setting I have ever gotten drunk before midday in, and I was keen to write about it all.
Žilavka: White; he says that the wine has “floral notes” but I’m not sure that’s right since I don’t feel my hayfever complaining; easy drinking fruity flavour.
Pošip: White; stronger taste; the kind of wine you would drink back home when you’re trying to convince yourself that it’s summer; Allegedly Melon [also my name for a ska band]
Blatina: Red; just a big glass of elegant, juicy forest berries; 11.45 and I’m drunk.
Trnjak: Red; the king of all wines; can’t tell if it’s from Mirza’s ashtray or if this stuff tastes like smoke; it’s a BBQ in my mouth; now I understand how those children could see the Virgin Mary.
I was too drunk to tell where Mirza took me after we left the vineyard, but as with so many places I saw in this country, there was a mesmerising waterfall along the way. We ate at a nice wee restaurant by the lake, where Mirza recommended that we try the pljeskavica [Bosnian burger]. What we were served surprised even him. The piece of meat was enormous; as big as the plate it was presented on. Considering that we had just gorged ourselves on cheese at the vineyard, it was a real test of our endurance to make it through the burger. I have rarely experienced a triumph like it. The victorious lunch took its toll on us, however, and both Mirza and I were struggling to keep our eyes open during the journey back to Mostar; which was more troublesome for Mirza than it was for me since he was the one driving the car.
When I returned to the hostel in Mostar, the pljeskavica acting as a sponge for the wine in my stomach, a young Canadian traveller was going through the same check-in process I had the night before, though without the rakija. She was talking to the wife of the family about how she and her friends were keen to go swimming in a waterfall, and my sun-kissed ears pricked up. Finally, I was the Irishman from Sarajevo, able to pass on knowledge amassed through travelling. I butted into the conversation to tell the Canadian about the Kravice waterfalls I had visited the day before. She told me that she had heard about the spot but was concerned that it would be too busy for her on a weekend. I assured her that when I was there on Friday afternoon it wasn’t overwhelmingly busy, and pulled the iPhone from my pocket to prove it to her. She huddled over the screen as I scrolled through the photographs I had taken of the waterfall. There was hardly a person to be seen in the pictures I captured. The Canadian marvelled. “Wow, there really aren’t many people there.” I was forced to confess that while I didn’t consider the Kravice waterfalls to be so busy that the Canadian shouldn’t visit, my photographs didn’t paint an accurate picture since I was trying to avoid snapping semi-naked strangers. Then I swiped a little too far into my reel, to the portrait Kenan had kindly offered to take of me standing by the impressive waterfall. I quickly withdrew my phone and we both pretended that we had never seen the image of me posing awkwardly in my orange chinos. As far as I know, the young woman never visited Kravice.
My plan for my final evening in Mostar was to take the free walking tour at six o’clock that was recommended by the hostel and then have some food and drinks around the old town, but there is a famous line by Rabbie Burns about the schemes of mice and men that often rears its head in my life. After a walk around the UNESCO World Heritage site, I was inevitably lured into a street cafe offering cheap Mostarsko on tap. I found it quite relaxing sitting by the side of a busy cobbled street in the old town and watching the world go by. Then a pasty guy in a straw hat sat at the table next to mine, and things changed. He asked the waitress if she had any alcoholic drinks suitable for a celiac. I believe they settled on a gin and tonic. A few minutes later, the waitress came back by our tables and stopped to ask me where I am from. She had obviously marked my accent out in her mind when she served me earlier, because when I told her that I am from Scotland, she turned to the gentleman at the next table and pointed out that he is from Ireland, and left us to it. It was like being a contestant on a terrible television dating show where prospective drinking buddies are paired up in accordance with how easily their accents can be understood. I guess it was kind of sweet of her to recognise that we were two guys sitting alone in a foreign country who are from the same part of the world, but still, I would have rathered that she had used her matchmaking talents to find me a Bosnian woman to talk to.
Nevertheless, I ended up missing the walking tour on account of drinking beer with my Irish date. John Patrick had started the day in Dubrovnik, but decided to take a bus to Mostar because he was tired of how overcrowded Croatia was with tourists. He had managed to find a hotel room for the night and was going to travel back in the morning, but in the meantime, he wanted to see as much of Mostar as he could. In between discussions over the failed UK government, Brexit, Scottish independence, and Irish unification, John Patrick told me about his hobby of participating in Roman battle reenactments. Apparently, the shows are especially popular in the Netherlands. I asked him if he always plays the same character, but he told me that he likes to be flexible and perform roles from both sides of the dispute. He purchased a new costume in 2020, just before the pandemic began, and hasn’t had the opportunity to wear it in public yet, but he was optimistic that the thirst for Roman battle reenactments would soon be reignited now that the world is gradually returning to normality.
I was told by John Patrick that the primary reason for him taking a holiday to Croatia was the news he had recently received which diagnosed him with an under-active thyroid and what he called “a fatty liver”, which he was at pains to point out isn’t caused by consuming too much alcohol. He wanted to get away for a couple of weeks to take his mind off things. It’s especially difficult to resent having your peaceful drink interrupted when you learn that the person you are talking to isn’t well. The Irishman spoke of the difficulties he had been suffering in Croatia due to the heat. His feet were swelling after walking for a while, he couldn’t sleep at night, and he was having to lather his skin in suncream. “You’d know all about that,” he said. What kind of line is that to use on your date? His ambition for the next trip he takes is to invest in a pair of linen trousers he had seen on Amazon for £80. Seemingly the linen shirts he was wearing on this holiday were doing a great job of cooling the upper half of his body, and next time the lower parts were going to be worthy of the same treatment.
At one point, John Patrick opened up his backpack and showed me the traditional Bosnian Fez hat he had just bought from a stall near the Stari Most. He told me that he was becoming concerned that he was bringing home so many souvenirs from his trip that he would have to go to the airport wearing some of his new t-shirts as well as the Fez hat. To illustrate, he placed the cylindrical red felt headdress on top of his straw hat. In the end, it was difficult to tell where the part of me that found the Irishman charming ended, and where the part that was drunk on Trnjak wine began.
I spent more than an hour in John Patrick’s company, which meant that I missed the six o’clock walking tour by a matter of minutes. Instead, I took a stroll around some of the streets of Mostar and happened upon the Museum of War and Genocide Victims 1992-1995. As far as Saturday nights go, this was one of the more harrowing ways I have spent mine. However, it can never not be a valuable experience to learn about the ways other human beings have suffered. Afterwards I stopped for some dinner, where I ordered dolma [stuffed peppers]. Having been in Bosnia for five nights by this point, I believe that I was yet to see a vegetable, and eating dolma seemed to be ample opportunity to rectify that. Though in true Bosnian fashion, the peppers are of course stuffed with beef and rice.
By the Kriva ćuprija [crooked bridge], which was built in 1558 as a trial before the construction of the larger Stari Most, I found the Old Crew Gastro Pub, which had live music being performed outside on both nights I drank there. Before visiting Mostar, I had never considered the tranquillity of drinking beer by 16th-century bridges, but there is a lot to be said for it. Being from Scotland and feeling most comfortable at a bar, I evaded the system of table service by going inside and directly to the source. There, the bar staff spoke entirely in Bosnian, except for the young woman whose job it seemingly was to wait for hapless tourists like me who she could translate for. In my case, my grasp of the language could get me as far as to make it known that I wanted a beer, but then the barman would pose a question and the whole thing would break down. “He’s asking if you would like a large beer,” the young woman translated after a few moments of awkward silence.
This same situation came up every time I went into the bar, like a really bad comedy sketch, so on Saturday night, I asked the barmaid if she could teach me the Bosnian word for large. She didn’t understand what I was saying and initially pointed to the 0.5L marking on the side of the glass. Honestly, it was like talking to my six-year-old niece, though I can only imagine how much more arduous it was for the poor woman. I shook my head, apologised, and said with my slowest, most drunken slur: “If I say large, you say…?” That was enough to bring us onto the same page, though I fear that by the end of the night, I had forgotten what she taught me. Part of the reason for that was the revelation when I returned for another large draft beer that I had been greeting people the wrong way since I arrived in Bosnia. I had led with “dobar dan” before looking to impress the barmaid with my veliko [large] vocabulary, but she stopped me dead in my tracks. “Veče,” she asserted. I assumed that I had misinterpreted her previous lesson and corrected myself. “Sorry, veče pivo.”
“No,” the barmaid came back. “Dobar dan is ‘good afternoon’, you should say dobro veče in the evening.” I felt certain that I was using an informal hello or hey, but that seemingly wasn’t the case. I tried to defuse my embarrassment with a joke. “Can I at least have the evening beer?” The young translator went about pouring my final large beer of the night when I asked her if all of this meant that I had been looking like an idiot walking around Sarajevo since Tuesday, wishing people a good afternoon at all hours of the day. If her smile could have said a thousand words, well, I suppose I couldn’t be sure what any of them meant.
There were no such difficulties with language when I passed the time before my late afternoon train back to Sarajevo at Craft Beer Garden imaimože. The pub sells a vast range of local craft beers, many of them brewed in-house, while the food is all organically grown in the chef’s garden. This was one place where you could be sure that there would be no mince stuffed inside your vegetables. Their pale ale was the most refreshing beer I drank on my trip, and it needed to be on another hot day in Herzegovina. The barman must have recognised my thirst, because he brought a schooner to my table on the pavement and invited me to taste the new beer he had been working on. “It’s the same as the one you are drinking,” he said as I brought the glass to my mouth, “only I have added a vegetable to the brewing process.” It is perhaps the first time I have hesitated from taking a mouthful of beer. If all I could taste from a glass of wine was the allegation of melon, what chance did I have identifying the flavour of a vegetable from a gulp of beer? As far as guessing games go, this was one of the most underwhelming I have taken part in. I wasn’t getting anything from it after the initial flavour disappeared. Eventually, the barman put me out of my misery – if drinking cucumber beer can ever be described as being put out of your misery. I didn’t buy a full pint of it.
The train journey between Mostar and Sarajevo is regularly listed among the most beautiful in the world, not that I saw much of it. A weekend of sun, wine tasting, and beer had taken it out of me, and I slept through much of the two-hour ride. By the time I arrived back in Sarajevo, it was early in the evening, and at least now I could say it. Although I missed the scenery from my seat, the few hours of sleep did me some good. I still had much to experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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.
It was tempting to walk around Sarajevo feeling sorry for myself on my final full day in the city. That day before you are due to fly home from an incredible time exploring a new place is always a bittersweet one, after all. Like last orders at your favourite bar: you know it will all soon be over, but you still have one more drink to enjoy with your friends before it is. My flight back to London was scheduled for six o’clock on Saturday morning, and by Wednesday evening I had composed a list of the things I needed to do before leaving Sarajevo. The page in my pocket notebook had so many items on it that it didn’t look as though I was going to have time to be depressed about departing Bosnia and Herzegovina. There were the usual things, such as picking up a souvenir copper coffee pot and some fridge magnets for friends, but other considerations on my list would require a bit more effort.
Instead of going to the pekara for my usual game of roulette with the bread, I wanted my last morning in Bosnia to be different, so I visited the restaurant inside Hotel Hecco, as Armin recommended earlier the week. While ordinarily I like my coffee ground, this cafe is found on the tenth floor of the hotel and its terrace offers a panoramic view of Sarajevo. The terrace itself is narrow and populated with white plastic tables and chairs which resemble garden furniture, while the coffee tasted no better than something you might be served from a machine in a supermarket. Nobody goes to Caffe Hecco for the quality of the hot drinks, though. It’s all about the view. From up in the hills, the city can appear so far away, a blur of buildings stood beyond those chalk white gravestones, but on the terrace, you are suddenly sitting amongst the steeples and minarets of Sarajevo. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to begin my farewell to the city, and it was another benefit of talking to the locals through Meet Bosnia, since I would never have otherwise thought to venture inside the unassuming hotel entrance.
My primary objective after coffee was to find a way that would best express my gratitude to the young women in the tour agency who had helped make my trip so memorable, and what better way than with fresh produce from the local market? I had noticed an abundant marketplace across the road from the pekara I visited regularly and came to realise that it is the infamous Markale Market, where 111 people were killed and more than 200 injured in two separate mortar bombardments in February 1994 and August 1995 – the latter of which is widely regarded as being the incident that finally provoked the NATO airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces, eventually leading to the Dayton Peace Accords and the end of the war. The road and pavement outside the open-air market are scarred with bloody roses, and somehow it seemed appropriate that I should give the gift of roses as a mark of my appreciation for the hospitality I was shown.
The market wasn’t as busy as I expected for a Friday morning. There were maybe a dozen people browsing the displays of apples, peaches, potatoes, courgettes, cauliflowers, cabbages, aubergines, spring onions, and the largest peppers I have ever seen. Close to the entrance were the flower stalls I was seeking. The first one I approached was owned by a small elderly woman who appeared to have nothing but her two front teeth, though that didn’t stop her from putting on an extremely cheerful face. I told her that I was looking for two bunches of flowers, and she wanted to know if I was buying them for home, as a gift or for somebody special. I explained that they were for two young ladies who had been very helpful during my time in Sarajevo, which prompted the flower seller to promise that she would pick out the very best roses and lilies she had. Through English that was almost as fractured as her dentures, the woman assured me that she has been working with flowers for more than 47 years and so knows how to put together a beautiful bouquet. Despite this wealth of experience, on the recent occasion of the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary, the florist’s husband went to a rival flower vendor to purchase forty-five red roses as a gift for her. This was the best story I had heard during my ten days in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and although we both laughed about it, I could tell that the woman still felt aggrieved by it.
“He was probably wanting to surprise you,” I said, having no idea how a married couple of 45 years can possibly still surprise one another. “Of course,” the florist responded with a shrug of her shoulders. “But come on. It’s like cheating.”
If there is a moment from my Bosnian voyage that I could freeze in time, it would be the look on Medina’s face when I walked into the Meet Bosnia agency with the two expertly-picked bunches of flowers in my grasp. For a moment, I thought that she might cry when I handed them over to her, which would have been something new for me when it’s usually my floral language that brings a tear to the eye. When she stepped out from behind the desk to thank me, it looked as though she was going to throw her arms around me, but in the end, it was possibly a relief that she didn’t. It’s not that I wouldn’t have welcomed a hug from Medina, but it was only midday and my shirt was already saturated with sweat. Nothing could spoil a friendly gesture more than the awkward sensation of perspiration. Medina asked if I was feeling sad about leaving Sarajevo, which was a difficult question. It’s true that I wasn’t looking forward to going home. Still, I told her that rather than feeling any sadness, I was more appreciative of how fortunate I was to have experienced such a beautiful, fragile, friendly, and fantastic place. Her face lit up when I said that my eleven days in Bosnia and Herzegovina had changed my life for the better and that it would take some time for me to fully appreciate it. I have never felt a connection with a place like the bond I developed with Sarajevo, and I vowed to anyone who would listen that I was already planning to return next year.
Almost as though willing myself to wallow in some form of misery on my last day in the country, I visited the War Childhood Museum. Sarajevo has many museums, but this is perhaps its most traumatic, and yet at the same time also its most charming and hopeful. The project was born from a book of the same name, when, in 2010, author Jasminko Halilovic appealed for people to send him responses to the question: “What was the war childhood for you?” Over two and half years he received more than a thousand testimonies, memories drawings, photographs, and artefacts which told the story of a generation that grew up during the war. Rather than risk having these personal items permanently lost to history, the idea was conceived to preserve them in a museum – the world’s only one that focuses exclusively on children who have been affected by war. Such is the nature of war, and history’s horrible habit of repeating itself, there is currently an entire exhibition dedicated to the children of Ukraine.
At the ticket desk, a beautiful young lady looked at me with a curious eye when I paid for my entrance. I believe that what I said to her roughly translates as: “Good afternoon. May I have [raises an index finger] adult? Please. Thank you.” Presumably it was my accent that tipped her off to something being awry, since her response was to ask in fluent English where I am from. “And you are learning Bosnian?” She swooned – or, at least, I translated it as a swoon. One of my favourite things about being in Bosnia and Herzegovina was how much the people appreciated me speaking even a few words of the language. Most of the time, in ordinary circumstances, people roll their eyes, shake their heads or sigh whenever I attempt to communicate with them, but not here. In Bosnia, they accept that I’m an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s saying. So enamoured was I with the woman behind the ticket desk that I purchased a copy of the War Childhood book after I had walked around the museum. Today it sits on my bookcase, still wrapped in its thin layer of cellophane. It is important to preserve memories.
Of all the points I had written on my list of things to experience before the end of my trip, one of the most important was to hear the Muslim call to prayer one more time. While as I have grown older I have discovered that most elements of religion leave me cold, the call to prayer is exquisite. I don’t know what it is I like so much about it, but I was determined to return to the bar from where I first heard it to find out. Not only was it the first place I had heard the beautiful chant, but it was also my initiation into Sarajevsko Pivo. As the embers burned on my final afternoon in Sarajevo, I took a seat outside and indulged in the local ale in anticipation of the speakers from the nearby Gazi Husrev-beg mosque bursting into song. Honestly, it gets more striking each time you hear it.
Whilst revelling in the afterglow of the call to prayer, I found that I was attracting the attention of an elderly gentleman at the table facing mine. The group he was sitting amongst had left, and since I had finished reading the Malcolm Gladwell book Talking to Strangers, which I bought at Luton Airport, there was no buffer to prevent people from speaking to me. This guy had the appearance of a spy in a 1950s war movie, and I was the informant with whom he had come to exchange information. There were surely more clandestine meeting spots in Sarajevo than around the corner from its largest mosque, although it was difficult to tell what value his coded secrets could be to anyone. I learned a lot about Drago in the brief time we spent over the beer he bought for me. He is recently retired from his job in Silicon Valley and splits his time between San Francisco and Sarajevo, the home city he left in the nineties and returns only to visit his grandchildren. His recommended holiday destinations are Hawaii and Mexico, where the all-inclusive cocktails are especially good. Drago confided that he had lost his wife to a sudden bout of leukaemia four years ago. It’s difficult to know what the best thing is to say when a person tells you something like that, especially when you have only just met them. Nobody has written a book about that, as far as I know. Even worse than knowing how to respond verbally, I had to find a way of telling him that I wanted to leave to go and have my last drink at Gastro Pub Vučko.
In my mind, I had built up all manner of expectations for my final visit to Vučko. There was going to be rock music playing loud, Bijelo Dugme, locals calling out after ‘the Scottish man’, flirtatious banter through broken Bosnian with the barmaid, chat with the physiotherapist, and rakija. Lots of rakija. When I emerged from the smoky haze at the bar, it couldn’t have been any more different. I didn’t recognise any of the staff, the music was at a tolerable volume, and the red Vučko draft tap was off. I don’t know that I have ever felt disappointment like it. With my 4 am ride to the airport in mind, I finished my last beer in Bosnia and Herzegovina and left the bar around ten o’clock. On my way back to the hostel, I walked past Vječna vatra (the Eternal Flame) once more, and for the first time, I felt sadness about leaving Sarajevo.
Four in the morning is not a pleasant time to be going anywhere, let alone an international airport. My body resented me, and after 11 days of feeling nothing but peace, love, and tolerance, I was hating everything. The bright lights of the check-in hall contrasted bitterly with the darkness of the morning outside, but even that didn’t stop it from being unusual when I couldn’t see the desk for WizzAir passengers. I paced up and down the tiny hall, unable to find anything. Eventually, it struck me that the sensible thing to do would be to look at the flight information screens overhead. That was when I first learned that the 6.15 plane to Luton had been cancelled. My heart sank. Nothing could have felt worse at that moment. Rail strikes across the UK already meant that I was being forced to pay an inflated £300 to fly from London to Glasgow that day, but now I wouldn’t even be able to make that. Although I am a 38-year-old man, I have never experienced anything like this. What are you supposed to do? I’ve been on trains that have been delayed or even cancelled, but you can always catch the next bus from Oban to Glasgow, or in the worst-case scenario, pay for a taxi – like I did for me and three strangers in 2014, when I was desperate to get to the city to see Limp Bizkit in concert and insisted on sitting in the back seat because I found one of the women attractive, only to have to stop less than an hour into the drive so that I could be sick by the side of a country road. Although the remainder of the journey was painful in its awkwardness, I still saw fit to ask the young lady out on a date when I next saw her in a bar several months later. It wasn’t any surprise when she declined the invitation.
After the initial shock wore off, instincts started to kick in. Standing in line at the ticket counter, I could almost feel the monkey within me beating its chest. All I could think about was how I could reach London the fastest possible way. That’s where I was supposed to be flying to, after all, so that’s where I was going to go. One man walked by and asked me, “is this the victims of WizzAir queue?” Behind me was the guy from Leicester who had taken the tour to Srebrenica with me a couple of days earlier. He had already figured out that he was going to try and get home via Zagreb; I envied his confidence. I reached the lady at the desk and asked her how I could get to London that day. She ran through various options, such as travelling via Frankfurt, Istanbul, or Basle, but they all involved 9 or 10-hour stopovers and a lot of money. What else could I do? I accepted her suggestion of flying through Switzerland and arriving in London at 9.50 pm, almost 16 hours after my original arrival time, though I had no idea how I was going to make it home from there. She was entering my passport details into the system when the monkey finally relented and I could get some relatively intelligent thought in. Why was I looking for a way back to London when it was Scotland that I ultimately wanted to reach?
With more urgency than I have ever mustered, even at last orders in Aulay’s, I stopped the ticket vendor mid-booking and went and sat in Sarajevo airport’s little coffee shop with an underwhelming cappuccino and an hour’s free WiFi and began searching for flights to either of Scotland’s two main airports myself. The options weren’t much better than the woman had offered me, some of them not arriving until 2 am or 8 am on Sunday – more than 24 hours later. I checked my messages, and as well as seeing that WizzAir had sent an email at 2 am advising me of their decision to cancel the flight from Sarajevo to London (although not the reason), I realised that they were giving me the option of rebooking my flight for free on the next available date, which according to their two flights a week schedule was Tuesday. That would at least allow me to use the train ticket that had originally been scuppered by the rail strike, and upon checking with Hostel Franz Ferdinand that they had accommodation available for another three nights, it emerged that the sensible option was to stay in Sarajevo. None of it was ideal, and it felt surreal to go from being sad over leaving the place to being disappointed about having to spend another few days in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but by the time I had taken a few calming breaths and the bus back into the city, I was feeling better about things. Any chance I got I was promising people that I would come back to Bosnia, though I never anticipated that it would be this soon. In the end, I only had myself to blame for drinking so much water from that damn fountain.
I made a beeline straight for Baščaršija and some proper coffee as I pondered my next move. It was striking the way that the survival instincts of the modern man have evolved from hunting animals to hunting for free WiFi spots. My favourite place for Bosnian coffee, Slatko ćoše, also happened to be one that offered an internet connection. Not very much time had passed before I was starting to enjoy the idea of having another opportunity to explore this city I had fallen for, although I spent most of the rest of that Saturday in bed, unknowingly missing what was the third Sarajevo Pride parade. The parade was all anybody was talking about when I finally ventured from the hostel the next morning, so much so that I was feeling disappointed for having not witnessed it. Instead, I was refreshed as I embarked on yet another trip with Meet Bosnia, this one taking me to Visegrad, Andricgrad and Drvengrad.
While it wasn’t the stamp I was expecting to receive on my passport that weekend, it felt pretty exciting to travel through Republic Srpska to East Bosnia and finally across the border into Western Serbia. Along the way, our guide Armin took me and a Finnish couple to see the impressive Old Stone Bridge in Visegrad, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2007 and was the titular bridge in Ivo Andric’s 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature winning novel, The Bridge on the Drina. In Andricgrad, we were visiting a town that is the project of the film director Emir Kusturica and is inspired by the works and characters of Ivo Andric. Drvengrad, in Serbia, literally translates as “wooden town”, and that’s exactly what it is: it’s an ethno-village which was originally constructed as scenery for Kusturica’s film Life is a Miracle, and eventually blossomed into a village made entirely of timber from conifer trees. I can’t think that I have seen anything else quite like it. From there, we took a ride on the scenic Sargan Eight heritage line: a narrow gauge railway found high up in the Zlatibor mountains that once upon a time served as part of the train route connecting Belgrade and Sarajevo before it was closed in the 1970s.
The short journey on the nostalgia train alone was almost enough to make up for the cancellation of my flight home, while an unexpected second chance at a last day in Sarajevo definitely made it worthwhile. The opportunity to see my favourite people, visit my favourite sights, eat cevapi at Nune, and drink in Vučko once more. I was reluctant to build my hopes up too high following the disappointment of my first last night there, though I couldn’t help but look forward to it. The night could scarcely have been better. Everyone who I wanted to see was there. The barmaid mentioned that she remembered me from my first visit to Vučko 13 days earlier, and asked if I remember her. I wanted to tell her that parents forget their firstborn child more easily than someone like her could slip from my mind, but without the evidence to back such a claim up, I decided instead to tell her that of course I recognise her, since she looks much different to the physiotherapist who had been tending bar in her absence. The barmaid’s laugh was hysterical. “I would hope that I do!”
As I ordered yet more beers, the barmaid insisted that I was pronouncing the phrase “mogu li dobiti” (may I have) incorrectly, which came as a surprise to me since it is one of the translations I felt most comfortable with and nobody else in the previous two weeks had told me that I was saying it wrongly. Either the other Bosnian people believed that I was using the correct wording, or they were too kind to correct me. As soon as I’d made the suggestion, it struck me that it could easily have sounded like a subtle dig at the barmaid, but it turned out that she found it unusual I would consider Bosnians to be kind at all. I asked if that is not her experience, to which she said it isn’t. I found it difficult to believe, and suggested that maybe her people are kind to those they don’t know, like me, which she seemed to think makes sense. “So it isn’t just you,” I concluded. As if to prove my point, the barmaid taught me how to ask for one more beer to save me, and her, from going through the same charade over again. I came to use “još jedan” many more times that night.
Despite all of my language faux pas in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it came as no surprise that goodbye was the hardest word to say. I bought a rakija for all of the staff in Vučko as my parting shot, while the physiotherapist reciprocated by giving me a 330ml bottle of Vučko Red to take away. It was by far my favourite of all of the generous gifts I had been given by people during my time in Bosnia: the brush, the wooden spoon, a fridge magnet, a canvas bag. The physiotherapist was right about rakija when he said that it will either correct or connect a person. I couldn’t have felt any more connected to Sarajevo and this wonderful country.
When I turned up at Meet Bosnia in the small hours of the next morning to make my second attempt at flying home, it was Edin, the owner of the tour agency, who arrived to drive me to the airport. The same person who gave President Bill Clinton a guided tour of Sarajevo was driving me to the airport at four o’clock in the morning. I couldn’t believe it. Inside, the WizzAir check-in desk was open, dashing the hopes of the small part of me that was wishing for one more cancellation. I knew that I would be back in Sarajevo one day, it was just going to have to wait a little longer.