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It’s a 90 minute drive from Travnik to Sarajevo in the outskirts of which we’re stuck in snarled up traffic. This gives us a chance to take in its geography, in the Sarajevo valley, in the middle of the Dinaric Alps, surrounded by five major mountains, some rising to over 2,000 metres. 

Like everywhere in the Balkans its been fought over since Roman times but today’s inhabitants live in the shadow of the Siege of Sarajevo. Thirty years ago, in 1992-1996,  the city was militarily encircled from those mountains that we see, and subjected to daily sniping, mortaring and shelling, first by the the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and subsequently by the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). The siege lasted 1,425 days, making it the longest in modern history. 

In a painstaking 101 page, 2002 report, Population Losses in the Siege of Sarajevo, September 1992 to August 1994, the United Nations presented the names of 3,798 killed persons and 12,919 wounded.

Bosnian Serb artillery inflicted immense damage (on average more than 300 shells struck Sarajevo every day) and targets such as schools, hospitals, and homes were not spared. Nearly every building in the city was damaged. Ordinary citizens, suffering the privations caused by the cutting-off of gas, electricity and water supplies, were deliberately targeted by shell and sniper fire. And the world media was there to watch it, write about it and film it.

We cross the river Miljacka in the city centre and drive a steep road to a mountainside campsite that offers toilets, showers and that much needed launderette. As soon as we pull into the forecourt we’re approached by an Englishwoman who tells us that the campsite is closed – the owner has Covid – but there’s another campsite next door. 

We descend down a short precipitous track into the tiny yard of Olywood One Campsite. The owner, Oliver, has managed to cram six campers, a tent and a motorbike into this little space. There’s a dirty wc/shower hut and the price is an extortionate 23 euros. But this is a short visit and we don’t have many options near the city centre. Unshaven Oliver introduces himself and says something weird and incomprehensible about how to say hello in English in Malaysia. I’m struck by his rank body odour. We resolve to prepare the van for the night, walk into the city and not return until bedtime. We’ll leave early in the morning too.

We walk down a steep cobbled lane, a 30 minute walk to the city centre, past a series of big cemeteries. Jo says she’s feeling a bit down and in the mood for a few drinks tonight – a sure sign of some high jinks to come. 

We head for Sarajevo’s biggest tourist spot: the street corner where the nineteen year old Gavrilo Princip started the First World War by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia. Some say that for many Westerners, the Sarajevo assassination provided a convenient means to divert blame for the First World War from their own leaders. Others argue that the war would have started anyway, if at a slightly later date; for years the Austrians had been fixated on attacking Serbia.  But that would spoil the tourist trade’s best Sarajevo story. The exact spot from which Princip fired his pistol is marked by embedded footprints in the cement pavement. He had little feet.

Not far from that corner is another of Sarajevo’s major tourist attractions, the historical and cultural centre of the old city, the Baščaršija district. Today it’s overwhelmed with cafes and souvenir shops selling the same old kitsch tat. We don’t linger for long. However, we do stop at Gallery 15/7/95, an award winning audio visual exhibition of the history of the atrocities of the Bosnian war, and in particular the siege of Sarajevo and the mass murders of 8,000 muslim men and boys in and around the nearby town of Srebrenica in the summer of 1995. 

Upon entry we’re supplied with audio guide headsets but I quickly ditch mine. The voice is a tedious gloomy recital of dates and numbers, DNA analysis statistics and facts relating to post massacre investigations relating to events in Srebrenica. It feels like a detailed litany to convince massacre deniers. But the photojournalism and the short films about Srebrenica are powerful and distressing. Jo is very upset by the account of a woman who witnessed the slow murder, in a kitchen, of an infant in front of its mother. She understandably cannot comprehend the monstrosity of such an act or the mindset of the perpetrator. There’s also a clever and poignant five minute film portraying, through the eyes of a young son sent out to get milk, five minutes in the siege of Sarajevo when a family’s life is transformed from near normality to chaos, death and destruction.  

We spend over two hours in gallery 15/7/95 at the end of which we’re emotionally spent and feeling quite flat. I google ‘best authentic bar Sarajevo’ and am directed just a few blocks away to a cafe called Zlatna Ribica. Its entrance is elaborately decorated in wood and wrought iron with an ornate door canopy. Inside is an Aladdin’s cave of antique furniture, wood panelling, framed mirrors, more wrought iron wall decor, antique chandeliers and fans, table lamps, cabinets full of ornaments and knick knacks under a warm golden glow of light. We sit in a couple of small stuffed vintage armchairs at a round table and order Sarajevska pivos (beers). There’s no food, just complimentary salted pretzels.

Thirty minutes later and we’re on our second round of beers. A blonde woman and two men enter the cafe. The men occupy seats near the entrance. The woman walks on and  passes us, taking in the atmosphere of the place. She overhears us talking, and in an English home counties accent she asks, ‘Are you English?’ We introduce ourselves and she takes a seat at our table. Her name is Sue and she’s a retired ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon from south London. She orders a beer and we chat. She lives with her Bosnian partner Emir, a veterinary surgeon, and twenty three cats in Abu Dhabi. They’ve flown into Sarajevo on a cheap Wizz Air flight. They’re looking to buy a property here. It is Emir who’s sitting by the entrance, in conversation with his friend, an architect.  ‘Emir.’ she calls. ‘These people are from England. Come and sit here’. They ignore her. Surprisingly, for an ENT surgeon, she chain smokes. We talk about our relocation to Yorkshire, our life of travel and impressions of Bosnia, she about divorce, early retirement from the stress of ENT surgery, and life in Abu Dhabi. 

We order another round of beers. ‘Emir.’ she says, ‘do please join us.’ which he now grudgingly does. We fall into discussion about my infected molar and the treatment I received in Travnik. ‘Best marijuana in Bosnia is grown in Travnik’ says Emir. Sue orders two more beers. There are five of us and even if the bottles on the table are half full she now frequently orders two beers. We quickly lose control of our consumption. 

Despite not wanting to join us, I’m now Emir’s best mate. He has his arm over my shoulder and he’s cautioning me about my oral surgery. ‘Who was this dentist in Travnik? You need a proper scan. You’re not on the right antibiotics. I can get you the correct antibiotics. I have contacts. Here’s my number. Call me.’ He shows me an image on his phone of a labrador’s teeth. ‘I treat teeth all the time.’ he says. ‘But I’m not a dog.’ I tell him.    

We arrived at Zlatna Ribica at 6pm and it’s now midnight. We’ve not eaten and we’re all very drunk. Jo and Emir go to the bar to settle up the – by Bosnian standards – pretty hefty bill. The obvious and fair thing to do would be to split it 50/50 – well almost fair – there are three of them and two of us. But despite their obvious wealth, to which Emir has been alluding to all night, he doesn’t have enough cash to go anywhere near 50/50. ‘What a tight arse.’ says Jo as we stumble into the street. It’s a warm night. We share a large chicken kebab – always best eaten when drunk – at a wooden table outside a kebab shop. 

We find a taxi at a nearby taxi rank. We tell the driver our destination at the top of the hill. ‘How much?’ Jo asks. ‘15 BAM’, he says. We’ve been advised by two separate sources that the going rate is 10 BAM. ‘No, 10 BAM.’ says Jo. The cabbie vaguely waves his hand and we pile in. What did that wave mean? we wonder later.  After fifteen minutes we pull up on the highway close to the campsite and Jo gives the guy 10 BAM. ‘No. 15 BAM.’ he says. I argue with him and he shouts at me. ‘Don’t shout at me.’ I shout at him. The exchange degenerates into abuse. He gets out of the taxi. Not a good sign. He’s tall and Bosnians carry guns. But I’m in no mood to back down. We eye each other up and shout more abuse. Jo tells us to stop it, and gives him 5 more BAM but she’s not happy. The guy at the bar not paying his share of the bill, a rude taxi driver ripping us off and now we’re at the overpriced shit hole of a camp. At the moment we feel we’re done with Sarajevo. 

At 8am the next morning we’re awake, dehydrated and hungover. We swiftly pack up and with a cursory nod to the campsite owner we drive up the steep ramp and onto the road, east to Serbia. Our destination is the spa town of Vrnjacka Banja, a distance of over 300 km, about 8 hours duration including distractions. The drive from Sarajevo to the border and through the towns of Rogatica and Visegrad is splendid, with the river Drina flowing alongside and often below us in the depths of deep gorges. We stop for coffee at a hotel terrace at the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over the Drina. The beautiful stone arched bridge was immortalised in the Balkans by Travnik-born and Visegrad-raised author Ivo Andrić, in his 1945 novel, the Bridge on the Drina.  At Mokra Gora we stop for lunch from the van and visit an old narrow gauge railway. The arrivals board declares that a steam train is due, but a few moments before its arrival time it is delayed. This happens several times so we decide to move on. 

Jo wants to visit the city of Niš to see a macabre early 19th century Ottoman Empire stone structure embedded with human skulls. It’s somewhere on the outskirts of the city. We eventually find it near a maze of one way streets without parking. I pull up on the side of the road and wait whilst she goes to take some photographs. Sitting here, I recall a passage in Dervla’s Balkan Odyssey where she derides the international community, and specifically NATO (she doesn’t mention that it was actually the Royal Netherlands Air Force) for dropping cluster bombs on the central market square of Niš in May 1999, killing 14 and inflicting terrible wounds on 28 more. These bombs are designed to kill people, not destroy infrastructure. and the use of them is in violation of the Geneva Convention (as is the use of depleted uranium bombs, also dropped by NATO on Serbia). I know it’s over 20 years since that incident but memories linger in the Balkans. Perhaps I’m being over sensitive but I wouldn’t feel any entitlement to a comfortable welcome in Niš market square. On our drive out of the city, Google takes us down a narrow street on which a small band of musicians are playing fast tempo brass and percussion instruments for a wedding ceremony – the wedding guests dancing off the pavement into the road.   

It’s 7pm when we arrive at the small village of Novo Selo, outside the spa town of Vrnjacka Banja.  We’re in hilly farming country with smallholdings and fairly large but basic farmhouses with adjoining greenhouses, barns, livestock pens and vegetable gardens. We pull into a big grassy field and park under an apple tree.  The owner steps out of a small outbuilding next to the main house and greets us with a big smile. She is Milena, a short, spritely, seventy year old woman, suddenly widowed only last year after fifty years of marriage.  She’s vacated the main farmhouse and now lives in a tiny outhouse in a room that serves as bedroom, lounge and kitchen, with an adjoining bathroom/toilet. She invites into her cosy living room which has been warmed by a log burning aga type stove in the corner. In another corner sits an old fashioned TV flickering a poor quality image of a football match.

We all sit at the dining table. She is the best host; allowing us to park on her lawn, sharing her shower and toilet, and feeding us salad, feta, and roast lamb from her farm – accompanied by her homemade raki. She speaks not a word of English but she introduces us to an Amazon App called SayHi – how is it that we’ve not come across this App before? Select two languages, speak into your phone and it translates from one and speaks the other – occasionally with some very amusing mistakes. Jo and Milena really hit it off and chat for hours. She has three daughters, seven grandchildren (‘like Snow White – Snežana.’ I say ) and some more distant relatives in Blackburn with whom she has lost touch. She survives on a paltry pension of 200 euros a month because she eats fruit, vegetables and lamb from the farm, burns local wood for heat and cooking, and augments her income through campers like us and renting her big farmhouse to Slovenians in the summer. She’s very convivial and so happy to have us as company. Jo has to tear herself away to get to bed.

It’s another fine morning and there’s no better way to start it than with a Milena Serbian breakfast of coffee, raki, cake, fried eggs, raki, pancakes, tomato salad and raki.  And Jo does a lot more chatting with Milena. We wheel out the Bromptons and cycle the hills into Vrnjacka Banja where Jo buys a padlock on which we write our names, lock it to the Bridge of Love and sling the key into the river. Jo convinces me that this is a good thing. She deserves a kiss. Back at the farm Milena is busy in the kitchen frying chicken for lunch. I reluctantly tell her that we cannot stay. We must get to the Bulgarian border before dark – but we promise her that, on our return trip from Turkey, we will visit her again. It’s a promise that we will keep. 

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