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The Balkans' new beauty Add to ...

Haggling with a Bosnian street vendor over the price of an artillery shell may not seem like your everyday holiday experience, but when you're backpacking through a city still recovering from one of the longest sieges in modern history, it's just one of the things you do.

I'm not an aficionado of fine munitions, but I do appreciate unique gift ideas, and if there's one thing Bascarsija (Sarajevo's Turkish quarter) has to offer, it is uniqueness.

Inside the shops, which line the bazaar's cobbled streets, coppersmiths hammer flower-print designs into vases made from discharged artillery shells found on the hilltops that surround the city. Others remove gun powder from unused sniper bullets and replace it with springs and ink cartridges, turning once-lethal ammunition into souvenir pens.

I opt for the bullet-cum-ballpoint-pen, which, after some haggling in broken English and flashes of raised digits representing each euro I'm willing to spend, costs the equivalent of $3.

The odd purchase is an indication that, in many ways, Sarajevo remains a city in transition, a destination still best suited for independent travellers. Unlike most European capitals, it has yet to be overrun by tourists.

Beyond Bascarsija, history-rich Sarajevo has returned to such a vibrantly colourful expanse of yellow brick and red-tiled roofs that it's easy to forget that just 12 years ago the city lay pummelled to near oblivion.

As a paperboy in Ottawa during the mid-nineties, I remember lobbing newspapers at my neighbours' doors fronted with photographs of death and destruction from the Bosnian war. But as a preteen with a small-world view, I never read past the headlines. The civil war in Bosnia ended in 1995 and the datelines from Sarajevo were soon replaced by Belgrade and Pristina, where reports of genocide and ethnic strife in Kosovo reached the public on a daily basis.

So, when my girlfriend and I decided to backpack through her ancestral homeland of the former Yugoslavia, we weren't sure what to expect.

We travelled to Bosnia from the sun-baked Croatian port city of Dubrovnik - an ancient walled beauty that once rivalled Venice during the age of great city states. A three-hour bus ride through twisting valleys and rugged green hills took us to the Bosnian city of Mostar, located halfway between Sarajevo and the Adriatic Sea.

From Mostar, the train to Sarajevo passed through Bosnia's beautiful landscape of lush hills cut through by emerald rivers. It is the sort of views featured today in a series of European television ads promoting Bosnia as an ecotourism destination under the slogan "Enjoy Life."

Our first sight of Sarajevo brought to mind that in addition to its last stint in the international spotlight during the Serbian siege of 1992-95, the city has been in the news before. Sarajevo played host to the 1984 Winter Olympics and, much earlier still, it was the place where the assassination of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, sparked a chain of events that led to the First World War. With such rich history and the mingling of three diverse cultures, Bosnia has always been an intriguing destination. For some, its recent emergence from bloodshed and ethnic strife has added yet another reason for exploration.

Savvy travellers are also discovering that prices here are still cheap compared with the rest of Europe - good accommodations can be found for $58 to $90 and meals rarely cost more than $20.

But Sarajevo is more than just a cheap and less-travelled destination. It offers a glimpse into the culture and cuisine of Muslims, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.

We could sip strong Turkish coffee at an outdoor table and listen to both the Muslim call to prayer coming from one of the city's many minarets while Christian church bells chimed the start of a new hour.

On yet another street, we sampled Serb and Croat cuisine, such as spit-roasted lamb, a mixed grill of several different meats and cevapcici - a dish of minced meat with cheese served with flat bread - washed down with homemade slivovic, a potent brandy.

While Sarajevo's ethnic pot is no longer boiling over, wounds of the war linger on and, in some cases, have become tourist attractions.

Most of the bombed-out buildings have been restored, but what are known as Sarajevo Roses - scarred pieces of concrete where mortars landed, creating floral-shaped fragmentation - can be found throughout the city. Red resin has been used to fill in the patterns in places where mortar explosions caused deaths.

Near the Olympic ski mountain remnants of the Sarajevo Tunnel - the city's life line, which ran under the United Nations-controlled airstrip and connected the city to the Bosnian-controlled countryside - are open to tourists.

Hunching over with a 50-kilogram backpack while trudging through part of the tunnel gives you an idea of what Sarajevans went through to get supplies during the Serbian siege. We visited the tunnel with "Sarajevo Sonny," who was a teenager during the war and is now a tour guide. He'll tell you how he had to carry water and firewood to his home while dodging sniper bullets. Sonny's two-hour tour will also take you to the hilltops from which snipers terrorized a stretch of city streets.

But Sarajevo, as well as the rest of the country, is as much about rebirth as it is about its bloody past. And it's this rebirth that guarantees Bosnia and its capital are not likely to remain uncrowded for long.

Tourist arrivals to the country in the first four months of 2007 were almost 20 per cent higher than during the same period last year and a World Tourism Organization study predicts that the Balkan nation will have the world's third-highest growth rate in tourism by 2020.

For now, Sarajevo boasts cheap prices and a unique cultural experience without the crush of tourist hordes. But get there soon. As the scars of war continue to heal, this undiscovered beauty may soon find itself one of the most popular destinations in the Balkans.

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

The simplest way from Canada is to travel to London and connect to Sarajevo or Dubrovnik with British Airways or Croatia Airlines.

WHERE TO STAY

Holiday Inn: Zmaj od Bosne 4; 387 (33) 288-000; . One of the city's most recognizable landmarks and largest hotels. Double rooms from $138.

Bascarsija Pansion: Veliki Curciluk 41; 387 (33) 232-185, . In the heart of the old town, this family run bed and breakfast is popular among younger tourists. Double rooms from $75.

TOURS

"Sarajevo Sonny" offers two-hour tours of the city's war sites for $18 a person. He departs daily from the Hostel Ljubicica (Mula Mustafe Baseskije, 65 Basear).

Certified taxi drivers can also act as tour guides for about $36 an hour and can be found throughout the city.

THINGS TO DO

Bascarsija is a must for shopping. The Sarajevo Tunnel Museum gives travellers a glimpse of wartime Sarajevo. There's a plaque marking the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated near the Latin Bridge. Energetic travellers can purchase Forgotten Beauty, a walking guide to the mountains surrounding the city, from the Buy Book shop in the centre of Sarajevo. But stay on marked trails as some areas are still mined.

SOUVENIR

Hand-crafted copper or silver coffee sets are popular. Mortar-shells-turned-vases and sniper-bullets-turned-ballpoint pens also make interesting souvenirs.

STRESS FACTOR

Trying to flag down your bill after every meal can be a bit of a strain on travellers with places to see and things to do. MORE INFORMATION

For general information, visit .

 

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