Seriously, if someone said to me this time last year you will travel the Balkans with an Australian guy who has issues with border staff wherever he goes because he looks like a gypsy, I would have laughed them off.
Yet here I am, in the Balkans, with the young Steve Jobs lookalike I met and detailed in my blog about Amsterdam.
Our grand plan was to meet in Bulgaria and go from there – where, we weren’t quite sure.
But within hours of being in Sofia which gave off the vibe of ‘big heartless city’ our decision was made – Bosnia and Hercegovina.
Given our fleeting visit to Sofia the only positive thing I can report is that it was home to a fantastically cheap gold mine of an opshop, where I scored myself a vintage Lacoste cardigan.
The gypsy on the other hand was like a cat on heat and came away with a a leather jacket, a shirt and four vests, though he still spends most of his time wandering around in 7/8s trackpants with a hole in the arse, shit kicker boots, a wife-beater singlet so low you can usually see his nipples, an undone denim shirt, a Fendora hat and brand new oval Ray-Bans – even when he’s inside.
Back to our decision to go to Bosnia and Hercegovina… Getting there was a bit of a mission and involved an all-night train in a triple bunk bed six-person sleeper cabin, followed by an all-day bus to Sarajevo.
So technically I’ve been to Serbia too, though only a few hours and all I have to report is I was desperate to pee but didn’t have enough local currency to use the toilet.
Many cross-legged hours later we arrived in Sarajevo map-less (the city isn’t on Google maps) and struggling to locate our hostel thanks to owner’s illegible directions.
But that’s my only complaint about Sarajevo, which is the most heartbreakingly beautiful place I’ve ever been.
The city’s history is incredibly rich, with more than 100 mosques and Turkish-style bazaars lining cobblestone lanes dating back to Ottoman rule, grand Austo-Hungarian European architecture, Communist concrete slab buildings and Yugo cars from the heydays of Tito, and of course, the physical and psychological scars left over from the 1992-95 siege of the city.
The remnants of the war are impossible to ignore and made up a massive part of our free walking tour with an amazingly grounded and passionate 27-year-old local called Neno.
To detail a few – on the pavements you often spot these splotches of red resin which mark where a mortar shell killed more than three people.
Then there’s the World War One and Two Memorial which still bears the scars from three years of shellings.
But the most moving for me was this memorial to the more than 1,000 children who lost their lives during the siege.
The green shapes symbolise a mother trying to protect her child, the fountain bowl is made of mortar shell casings and is covered in the hand and foot prints of their loved ones’ left behind and the roll-call on these spinning cyclinders make a baby rattle sound when you move them.
Spinning the cylinders we stumble across an infant with the same name as our guide, prompting Neno to recall how he spent three-and-a-half years of his childhood hiding in a basement with about 20 other people, how he still sucks on sugar cubes out of habit as he use to steal sugar during the war and how after the siege ended even their family cat refused to eat the food aid supplied by the international community – hence this tongue and cheek tribute nearby.
Then, after the tour when we were climbing the hill slopes to get a panoramic of the city we stumbled across this war graveyard – the final resting place to some of the 10,500 Sarajevans who lost their lives.
It messes with your head, made worse by the fact while we were up there three local lads asked the gypsy to take photos of them and once he agreed promptly rolled out a flag carrying the letters BMNP, which we soon discovered was an acronym for the Bosnian Movement for National Pride.
Sensing our disgust the bigoted teens tried to explain they weren’t Bosnian Nazis – though their organisation stands against jews, gypsies, Serbian Chetniks, the Croatian separatists, homosexuals and blacks.
If anything it was a brutal reminder that 17 years after the war it is a fragile peace – international troops continue to patrol the streets, there’s soft borders dividing the country along ethnic/religious lines and the country has a three-way revolving presidency.
It was a grim moment, made grimmer by the fact once they left the gypsy managed to stand on his new Ray-Bans, after stupidly placing them on the ground while taking photos.
And, he had only just started to emerge from that day-long depression when this crafty local jipped him into buying a clip-on earring as a ring.
I’m still regretting my decision to break the news to him and even my shout of a cup of tea didn’t soothe his anger.
Luckily Bosnian food did the trick and hands down Sarajevo served up some of the best food of my 10 months of backpacking, for instance:
For breakfast: Burek – a filo-pastry pie filled with either meat, feta, or feta and spinach. Delicious but seriously bad for the shape of my arse.
For dinner: cevapi meat fingers.
For dessert: tufahije – baked apple stuffed with walnut paste.
And in-between meals – Bosnian coffee, particularly this one, lovingly crafted by a local called Mustafa, who was so excited about my interest in his country dusted off piles of guidebooks for me to peruse while he nervously brewed my coffee.
After Sarajevo we decided to visit Mostar, famous for its 1566 Stari Most bridge, infamously blown up by the Croats during the war and reopened in 2004.
It is seriously beautiful, particularly from the banks of the river as you peer up at the local lads working their magic on tourists, racking up enough tips (usually at least €25) to jump from the 21-metre height.
My problem with Mostar was how massively tacky and touristy the shops and restaurants surrounding the bridge are.
But you can’t blame them for milking the Stari Most, it’s their life blood given their industries and factories were destroyed during the war and walking around town the physical scars remaining are far more obvious to see than in the capital.
And, as much as the gypsy and I had our fair share of moments in Bosnia, without him I would never have ventured here and never have discovered the country’s top attraction – the people – who are the most helpful, friendly, generous and unassumingly warm folk I have stumbled across during my trip.