Bosnia: History, post-war, culture and more

Bosnia: History, post-war, culture and more
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Walking along the streets of Sarajevo, in Bosnia Herzegovina, felt like travelling back to another era, in this case, to pre-WWI days in Eastern Europe.

The city is rich in history, charm and character. Beside my hotel in Sarajevo - Hotel Europe - were some medieval ruins of what was Bezistan, or covered market places.

A group of us, journalists from around the globe, stayed here during our week-long trip in April. From my bedroom window, I had a close-up view of a mosque's dome and minaret, almost within arm's reach.

Local Expert Dino Lemesh proved to be an interesting History "teacher" on our walkabout of the city. Over here, across from the Latin Bridge, he pointed out, is where the Archduke of Austria-Hungary Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip in 1914.

A plaque on the wall of what's now a war museum is a reminder of that tragic incident that sparked off a series of events that led to WWI.

Above: The beautiful Neretva River flows through the charming city of Mostar.

Remembering war victims

During the Seige of Sarajevo (1992-1996), the Bosnian Serbs encircled the city with some 13,000 troops stationed in the hills. From this vantage point, they assaulted the city with firearms, artillery and tanks.

Serbian snipers hiding in the hills opened fire if they spotted anyone crossing the street which connected the industrial area to the cultural centre (the Old Town), so the street came to be known as "Sniper Alley". It is actually Sarajevo's main road, known as Dragon of Bosnia Street.

It has been over 20 years since the seige, but there are still many reminders of its violent past, such as the bullet-riddled buildings in the city. This includes Sarajevo's Radio and TV Station, with its pockmarked front wall.

In the underground war tunnel (aka the Tunnel of Hope) in Sarajevo, Bosnia. In the underground war tunnel (aka the Tunnel of Hope) in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Then there are the Sarajevo Roses that can be seen on the ground in various places; these are concrete "scars" that resulted from mortar shells exploding on the ground, and which were later filled with red resin.

In contrast, the Austro-Hungarian section of Sarajevo is scenic - with its surrounding hills, rivers and bridges.

Later, as we drove past the bright yellow building that is the Holiday Inn, Lemesh pointed out that it too was hit during the seige. Then, at the War Tunnel Museum, we watched a video of the turbulence of those days, including footage of the hotel burning after being hit by sniper fire.

We went underground and walked along a short stretch of the 121km Tunnel of Hope (aka the war tunnel), which proved to be Sarajevo's secret lifeline during the seige. This subterranean passage enabled the locals, undetected by enemy forces, to bring in essential items for the beseiged city.

Most Bosnians have lost loved ones in the war, added Lemesh, himself a war survivor and privy to Sarajevo's secret lifeline. His grandparents were among those who used the tunnel during the seige.

There are hardly any new or flashy cars on Sarajevo's roads. This, Lemesh mentioned, is because acquiring the latest cars is generally not a priority for Bosnians. What is foremost on their minds is getting their homes fixed.

Bosnians are constantly repairing their homes, he said, adding that while other countries spend their money on development, Bosnia Herzegovina uses their money for rebuilding.

"The mark of spring is having a construction machine in your yard," he quipped.

Mingling with the locals

We were excited to learn that, for dinner that evening, we would be hosted by local families.

My group of six met our host, a woman named Sanela, and her nine-year-old daughter, Lamija, outside their block of apartments.

We took a dimly lit, rickety lift with wooden doors, up to their apartment, where we met Sanela's husband Bajazid Halilagić and their elder daughter Ilvana, 16.

The pastel-hued walls of their cosy abode was adorned with paintings. And the night-time view from up there was lovely.

After a round of introductions, we sat down to a traditional meal that Sanela had prepared. We started off with Bey's Soup (comprising bits of chicken and vegetables) and salad. For mains, we tucked into little meat bundles wrapped in bay leaves; meat-stuffed onions with cream; mashed potato; and filo pastry with spinach and cheese filling.

All this was washed down with refreshing elderberry juice. Baklava provided a very sweet ending to our meal.

Over dinner, we learnt that during the war, even schools and hospitals were targeted by snipers. Children, too, if they dared venture out of their homes just to play.

After such a heavy topic, the mood lightened up when Ilvana brought out some photos (of herself during a game of basketball) and a stack of her artwork, and the topic of conversation shifted to hobbies.

Not to be outdone, Lamija started singing. In all, she sang three songs, in English. Sanela did not discount the possibility of Lamija participating in the Eurovision song contest when she is older.

Dining with the locals - an authentic way to get to know a country's people and culture - is among the Signature Experiences offered by Insight Vacations.

Tradition lives on

It was fascinating to walk along the labyrinth of narrow, winding streets of the Old Town, and explore the Turkish-style Bascarsija (medieval bazaar). The people there still practise their traditional crafts, and the skills are passed down from one generation to the next, as in the case of artisans Nelman and his neighbour Azra, both copper/silversmiths.

There's also a good, old-fashioned barbershop at the bazaar.

When we stepped into Nelman's shop, he was engrossed in his work - fashioning a copper coffee mug using a small hammer. There were rows of fine-looking copper coffee sets sitting on the shelves.

Nelman, 32, said that his is a family business that has lasted three generations.

A few doors away, Azra, 23, was waiting at the entrance of her shop. She beckoned us to enter and browse in what she described as a workshop-cum-mini museum. When she found out I was from Malaysia, she warmly greeted, "Apa khabar?"

Like most souvenir shops, Azra's sells copper/silver coffee-making sets, pretty "gem"-studded decorative teaspoons, colourful lamps, handmade jewellery and more.

Then she invited us to follow her downstairs. What a treasure trove it was! It was filled from top to bottom with all kinds of souvenirs, antiques, traditional stringed musical instruments, utensils and receptacles.

A huge copper globe caught my eye, as did a black-and-white photo of a wrinkly-faced and bearded man. That was her grandfather, she said. Her great-grandfather had started copper-smithing in their family, and then taught the skill to her grandfather. Her father too learnt the trade, and began training Azra when she was 16.

As we were leaving, I asked about some old, faded photos at the shop window. Azra explained that they showed her father receiving awards for his craft contributions.

After all that walking and exploring, we had worked up quite an appetite. Lunch was at a restaurant that serves the local dish called Cevapcici (Cevapi, for short). It is essentially a fluffy flat bread filled with grilled skinless sausages, chopped onions and sour cream. Tasty, although a bit too salty for me.

Moving along, we visited the Gazi Husrev-beg complex that comprises a mosque, museum and library. The ceilings of the mosque are impressive, with their fine artistic inscriptions and patterns.

Back in our hotel, we indulged in some Bosnian coffee, served in dainty coffee sets, accompanied by morsels of Turkish delight.

After Sarajevo, we took the scenic road past Jablanica Lake and through the beautiful Neretva Gorge en route to the historic town of Mostar.

Along the way, we stopped for a sumptuous lunch comprising its local delicacy - roast lamb, slowly cooked over an open fire.

Later, we spent about an hour exploring Mostar. There were shops offering charming souvenirs and a market selling fresh produce of all kinds. I caught sight of a gypsy woman carrying her baby, with a shy, little girl following her.

A little further on, the sound of loud, sometimes off-key singing caught my attention. A young boy about 12 years old, in an oversized jacket, was belting out songs like there was no tomorrow.

As it had been drizzling, the cobbled stones of the Stari Most (Old Bridge) were so slippery, we had to tread carefully.

At the historic bridge, a young, lean man announced that he was going to jump off it, "if the price was right". As the hat was passed around, a number of tourists willingly parted with some cash in order to watch his daredevil antics.

Minutes later, he leaped off the bridge - without any safety harness or rope! The amazed crowd erupted in hearty applause.

What other interesting people and sights were around the corner, I wondered.

This media trip was sponsored by Insight Vacations. For enquiries and bookings, contact Insight Vacations (03-2091 9966 / e-mail insight@cit.travel / www.insightvacations.com). Enjoy additional 12% savings with Visa Infinite / Visa Signature card payment or additional 10% savings for all other Visa cardholders.

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