If your conception of Bosnia and Herzegovina, like mine, was last informed by Dan Rather in 1995, then your prejudices are desperately out of date. The grayscale world of rubble, graffitied slogans and shawled babushkas pushing onion carts is an image completely detached from modern-day Bosnia, which has shaken off the dust of mortared concrete and is gradually finding its feet some 15 years after it was battered by civil and ethnic strife. The emerging Bosnia is rich in heritage and history; natural areas and national parks are accessible in ways no other Western country would permit; people are warm and inviting despite and/or because of the country’s recent brutal past; and its lifeblood, Sarajevo, is a gem of a city on par with any other small capital.
Almost all of Bosnia’s attractions are currently balanced on the knife’s edge of being just ripe enough to attract visitors with a (limited) tourist infrastructure, but remote enough to stay unshared and unspoiled by the droves of tourists that blight most European attractions. But as with virtually every other country on the continent (and some not even), Bosnia aims to join the EU. While this is a driving force for modernization, it also opens the gates to tourism en masse. And as the English and Germans and Australians and Canadians sluice in, novel and unprocessed experiences husk over into a antiseptic catch-all itinerary brought to you by Topdeck or Contiki. So now’s the time to go.
And if you go, for the love of food, eat everything you see. Food would be one of the last things anyone expects a surprise from in Bosnia, except maybe if something were to jump out of it, but it’s phenomenal. The local dishes are meat- and starch-based, which is typical of the region, but they’re deftly and deliciously prepared everywhere. A plate of ćevapčići (minced meat sausages served with onions, flatbread and ricotta cheese) or burek (a minced meat-filled phyllo pastry) will run you less than $3, fill you up for half a day, and are ubiquitous. It’s not just local dishes that are prepared with aplomb – everything we sampled, from the Tex-Mex burritos in a Mexican restaurant playing soft jazz covers of Michael Jackson to the stone-grilled chicken with tomato and pepper salad prepared at our table in a small hidden alley, was delicious. One could eat like a king here on the budget of a peasant and grow very fat indeed. I’m no hyperbole-happy food critic, so you may take it literally that the best food we’ve eaten in Europe, even without factoring in price, has been in Bosnia.
In keeping with Balkan form, Bosnians are incredibly hospitable. While English is not nearly as widely spoken as in neighbouring and tourist-coddling Croatia, Bosnians are hospitable in a disarming way. Those that do speak English are pleased as punch to talk about their country’s great and not-so-great attractions, great and not-so-great Bosnians, and great and not-so-great historical events. The war is still an open wound and makes for large conversational detours to avoid talking about it. Some will wax philosophical about its effects on Bosnians at large, and lament the fact that the resulting post-war handouts have created an unappreciative society. But most avoid the topic all together. It’s understandable. Imagine if your drive to work passed by cemeteries that cover an entire hillside in the middle of the city.
But to not see beyond the recent conflict would be to do the region an injustice. A rich historical vein runs through the country, mixing a plurality of religious and ethnic bloodlines. Empires have fallen in this country more often than not, and Bosnians have seen the rise and fall of the Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians, Nazis, and Yugoslavia, among others. This is where the Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand, which was effectively the reason for every major conflict of the 20th century.
People say that Turkey exemplifies East meets West, but I think Bosnia is a better example of the coming together of Islam and Christianity. Churches and mosques sidle up next to each other peacefully. In Turkey, it is evident despite the secular government that Islam dominates everything. One never has the feeling that a particular religion is dominating the culture of the area in Bosnia (except when you’re woken up at dawn by the muezzin) and Bosnians go about their lives with a disinterest as opposed to an enmity toward neighbouring faiths.
During the war in the Balkans, the Serbs generally disregarded Bosnia in terms of future prospects, with an eye instead for the coastline of Croatia. With the amount of coastline and the associated tourist Euros and Dollars that long stretches of sun-drenched shore bring in, it was an obvious move. In comparison to its neighbour, Bosnia is lacking in the natural wonders department. But what it lacks in number, it makes up for in the lack of tourists thronging about. Take these waterfalls for example:
There is no chance in hell you’d be let do this anywhere in Croatia. The closest you’d get is a photo with a zoom lens. Here in Bosnia, on the other hand, the closest thing to a security guard or even a ticket seller is some guy near the parking lot selling little figurines of the Virgin Mary with Bosnia emblazoned on the base. There is a downside, though, to the freestyle tourism you encounter in Bosnia, and that is nobody has learned how to use trash bins.
Nowhere is perfect, of course. But if traveling annoyances to you means herds of camera-weighted tour groups, then you’d do well to suffer the litter and language barriers of Bosnia for an experience that is almost entirely faded from European travel.
Check out some photos from the country here.