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Former war zone in Eastern Europe is all but unknown to Western tourists
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The Orange County Register (MCT) - I left for Europe in the spring with more guidebooks than pairs of pants in my travel backpack. Walking out of baggage claim in Prague, I felt the load of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Croatia on my shoulders.
But about halfway through the three-week trip, our plans dropped off the map.
My sister and I were in Budapest and decided to take the train through Bosnia-Herzogovina to arrive in Dubrovnik. The only problem was that none of our travel books included the once war-torn nation.
My sister e-mailed a grad school friend who had fled Bosnia during the war and resettled in Fresno, Calif.
"Lejla," she wrote, "Where do you recommend we visit?"
"You just blew my mind! You lucky girl!" Lejla wrote back with a detailed itinerary.
We arrived in Sarajevo, the capital, after a sweltering 12-hour train ride. We walked to a modest pension. Our room opened with our own skeleton key. We grabbed a little sleep before embarking on Lejla's tour.
Our invisible guide narrated the thinnest, but most authentic travel guide I've used: a three-page e-mail printed from an Internet cafe. Retracing Lejla's route, I experienced Bosnia through a personal and often painful lens.
I'd never met her, but I could hear the emotions in her e-mail _ the fond memories of the park where she cut classes and suggested that we stop for a soda _ or her orientating us to look at the forest-covered mountain where Serbian snipers firing into the city shot and blinded her husband.
Lejla's instructions took us on a bus ride to an ancient Ottoman-period fort high above the city, where she said we would have the best vantage point of Sarajevo and the former battle lines.
She then guided us down a hill to the war cemetery where many of her friends are buried. Christian graves with crosses lay alongside Muslim graves with Arabic script. Nearly every marker showed a birth date in the 1970s and a death date in the 1990s.
Sarajevo was a living, disfigured, monument to war. Men hobbled on one leg. Women walked with canes. No area seemed untouched. A memorial plaque and bouquet of flowers were mounted outside an upscale clothing store. I was stunned that burial spots were crammed everywhere in the city _ underneath apartment balconies, across from bakeries, next to plots of farm land.
Lejla's e-mail directed us to the city library that was burned by the Serbs and is undergoing renovation. It looked like a bombed-out prop from a movie set. She instructed us to stop at an indoor Turkish bazaar from the 1500s. It was near the spot where the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in 1914, setting in motion the tangle of military alliance that led to World War I. Nearby was a medieval Muslim mansion, recalling Bosnia's place as a western outpost of the Islamic world.
Her directions were often informal: "have a dessert at the sweetshop at the exact place of the disappearance of the cobblestone." In another description she wrote: "it can be confusing because there are so many small streets and no map accounts for them because they appeared after the war and there is no money to cartograph them."
In the late afternoon, we walked through the main promenade to a plaza where a group of older men were playing a game of life-sized chess. The black and white pieces were about two feet tall and the squares of the sidewalk worked perfectly with some painted black to mimic the board. A crowd gathered around the men, and though I couldn't understand what they were saying, they seemed to be calling out unsolicited strategy advice. One man, wearing a shirt and tie, sat atop an aluminum trash Dumpster. The men laughed, smoked and studied every move.
We continued on past shell-marked apartments, the Iranian embassy and drab Soviet-looking office buildings. We found crazy-good Mexican food, a huge relief after a lunch of cheese pizza with ketchup masquerading as tomato sauce. We then popped into a hookah bar with radiant Arabian lanterns hanging over long, low couches. The menus were in English. Maybe this must be where the UN peacekeepers liked to hang out.
The next morning, we took the bus to the historic city of Mostar, the most important city in Herzogovina. The journey was made longer by frequent stops for the driver and passengers to get off and smoke.
At the town square, we arranged to rent a room from a local family. Lejla advised us to see if any of the local boys were diving in the Neretva River from the Old Bridge. Despite the name, it is a recently rebuilt version of the 15th century arched stone masterpiece destroyed by Croatian artillery during the war. The bridge was majestic over the turquoise blue water.
A crowd gathered around a young man in a red Speedo, who teased us by leaning closer and closer to the edge, but never jumping. After his partners in the adrenaline business had collected enough tips from spectators down below, he dived in.
My sister and I had rationed enough Bosnian Marks to cover the bus ride to Croatia. We pooled our meager change and shared pasta and beer at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Neretva and the Old Bridge. The price was among the lowest of our trip, the equivalent of a few dollars.
With our whirlwind Bosnian trip complete, we folded up Lejla's guide and, sadly, went back to the guidebook and the beaten path.
Bosnia is at peace, but high unemployment and ethnic-religious tensions persist. Check out the latest information at the State Department's Web site, travel.state.gov.
Courtney Perkes: firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2009, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).
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