After an unusual border welcome, Tim McCready finds a welcoming world of contrasts during a tour of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Thumbing his way through my New Zealand passport, carefully considering each page, the Serbian border officer looked up at my Serbian friend and asked him to translate a question for me: "What do I need to do to move to New Zealand?"
I laughed. But the officer glared at me and asked the question again. He wasn't kidding.
"Tell him we need skilled workers in hospitality and tourism ... and construction," I said.
Without even a hint of a smile, he nodded at me, handed back the passport, and motioned us on into Bosnia and Herzegovina.
We left Serbia's capital Belgrade early in the morning, heading southwest towards Trebinje — Bosnia and Herzegovina's southernmost city. The eight-hour drive passed through dramatic scenery. Soaring rugged mountains covered in thick forest, dotted with small villages, magnificent clear winding waterways, and the occasional brutalist concrete structure, honouring those who have died in battles from the country's turbulent past. Today, many of them are crumbling away — their ruins a bleak reminder of the economic problems of the region.
Game of Thrones has popularised the charm of Croatia's Dubrovnik. It has become so inundated by cruise ships and visitors that Unesco has threatened to revoke its status as a World Heritage Site if numbers aren't limited. On the other hand, Trebinje — just 30km away — is relatively quiet. There is a real sense of activity, but it is real-life, day-to-day activity — not tourism. The old town's untouched Ottoman architecture, stone houses and towering walls make it one of Bosnia and Herzegovina's most picturesque cities, and a credible rival against the circus of Dubrovnik.
Sipping coffee at a cafe on the edge of the city square, I watched the sun creep over the old city walls and on to the local farmer's market that surrounded me. The central square converts to a market each day, with stalls selling local produce, cheese and rakija (a fruit brandy popular in the region) — and the sweetest, juiciest strawberries I have ever tasted. As in much of the Balkans, food here is fresh, tasty and very, very cheap.
The clear blue water of the river Trebisnjica flows through the city, passing under the city's impressive Ottoman bridge — built in 1574 and painstakingly transported stone by stone 5km downstream in the 60s to avoid damage during the construction of a dam. I was yet to learn that in this region, bridges — with extraordinary pillars, impressive arches and ornate brickwork — were masterpieces waiting to be discovered.
But despite the beauty of Trebinje, one of the country's most visited tourist destinations is 120km north — the small town of Medjugorje: the site of an alleged apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1981.
As we made our way toward one of the most important religious sites on the planet, we stopped briefly for lunch at the Kravica waterfall. The falls are truly one of Europe's hidden gems: beautiful clear water cascades down vast cliffs, wrapping around to create a stunning natural amphitheatre surrounding the lakeside. A few brave visitors were in the water — despite being ice cold year-round, it's a popular spot for a dip.
Another 20 minutes in the car brought us to the main street of Medjugorje. It was a world away from the tranquillity of the waterfall, and felt more akin to driving the Las Vegas Strip — if you swapped the grand casinos for religious-themed souvenir stores and high-rollers for Catholics.
The town has become one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for Catholics in the world. It has a population of about 2000, yet receives more than one million tourists each year. It is estimated that 30 million pilgrims have visited the town since the reputed apparitions seen by six children in the early 1980s.
Souvenir stores line the main street, selling all kinds of religious memorabilia: jewellery, rosary beads, Jesus on the cross in all sizes, and even beer — branded with the apparition site, of course. Whether you are visiting Medjugorje for religious purposes or not, you cannot deny that the creation of such a bustling economic livelihood for the formerly modest agricultural village is nothing short of impressive.
Buying a heavily marked-up bottle of water from a convenience store close to the apparition site, I was approached by the shopkeeper with a recognisably thick American accent:
"Is this your first apparition visit?" she asked. I nodded and told her it wasn't a typical destination for me. "I'm here every year from Wisconsin," she told me, proudly explaining that she comes from the first approved apparition site in the United States. "I come back here during the summer high season and make an absolute killing," she said, as she handed back my change.
Like Medjugorje, Mostar is bursting with tourists. Colourful bazaars and restaurants line the crowded cobblestone streets; historic houses and mosques spill down the cliffs surrounding the old town. Limestone steps lead to hidden restaurants, their terraces overlooking the river and its infamous bridge — the perfect venue for Turkish coffee ... or drinks late into the night.
Of all the spectacular bridges in Bosnia, when referring to the "Old Bridge" (Stari Most), it can mean only one: the medieval bridge of Mostar that spans the Neretva river. The bridge — symbolically linking the Muslim east with the Christian west for 427 years — was destroyed during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 90s, ripping apart the city's unity.
It was painstakingly rebuilt to its former glory in 2004 and using the same local stone as the original bridge; in 2005 it was added to the Unesco World Heritage list. When reconstructed, Unesco said of the bridge: "The Old Bridge area, with its pre-Ottoman, eastern Ottoman, Mediterranean and western European architectural features, is an outstanding example of a multicultural urban settlement. The reconstructed Old Bridge and Old City of Mostar is a symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities."
Nowadays, the bridge is brimming with souvenir stalls that jostle for space. From the top, locals jump a dangerous 24m into the cold Neretva River below. This ancient tradition has become a moneymaking exercise as divers wait until they have collected enough money from the eager crowds that gather before taking the plunge.
My last stop — 130km north of Mostar — was Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina's capital and largest city. Arriving close to dinnertime, I pushed my way through the narrow streets of the Old Town — the city's historic precinct and cultural heart that dates back to the 15th century. Stalls sell coffee, copperware, trinkets and souvenirs that spill out on to the cobblestones.
The sights and smells from Bascarsija (the old bazaar) consumed my senses, and on an empty stomach, the smoky rich smell of cevapi and onions that fills the air was impossible to resist: a Balkan speciality of grilled mince shaped into a small sausage, served with flatbread. A generous meal sets you back just a few dollars.
Following dinner, I left the gritty and overcrowded winding labyrinth of the Old Town and stepped out into Sarajevo's main boulevard — previously dubbed Sniper Alley due to the danger it presented during the Bosnian War, now transformed to a trendy high street that features all the top names you'd expect anywhere in the world.
The Siege of Sarajevo, lasting 1425 days, was the longest siege of a city in modern military history. The atrocities that took place are difficult to fathom, but the abandoned buildings and bullet holes that remain in facades act as a constant, cruel reminder.
"Why would you want to visit war-torn Bosnia?" my brother asked before I left New Zealand.
"Are you sure it's safe?" asked my mum.
To many, the mention of Bosnia and Herzegovina conjures up memories of the war in the 90s. Images from the television news of the tragedy there remains etched into hearts and minds: shelling and gunfire, buildings alight across the city, and genocide — the atrocities resulted in 100,000 dead and more than two million refugees.
The city still has a way to go. Minefields laid during the siege remain in the hills. Signs remind you that venturing too far off the beaten track is absolutely forbidden.
But Sarajevo — with an eclectic, energising vibe — is now a beacon of hope for peace and multicultural tolerance. One of the city's taglines is "meeting of cultures", and the juxtaposition between East and West is evident. Sarajevo has been a city of religious diversity for centuries — Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and the Jewish community live side by side.
As I made the journey back to Serbia's capital Belgrade, the words of the Serbian border officer continued to echo in my mind.
"What do I need to do to move to New Zealand?"
Despite the extraordinary vistas and rich culture, the economic situation of the region means locals often don't have the financial freedom to allow them to appreciate it. The older generation is nostalgic about the days when Yugoslavia was under the leadership of the adored Tito; the younger generation desperately wants something better than what the region has given them and their parents. The atrocities of the recent past are never far from anyone's minds.
But tourism numbers are growing and creating new opportunities. The World Tourism Organisation claims that Bosnia and Herzegovina will have the world's third-highest tourism growth rate between 1995 and 2020 ( admittedly this comes from a low base, given the conflict in the 1990s).
Natural beauty with majestic waterfalls, ancient towns steeped in a complex history, hearty food and welcoming people.
Whatever these words conjure up, it probably isn't Bosnia and Herzegovina. But it should.
flies from Auckland to Sarajevo, Bosnia, via Doha.