Outside the thick snow quickly covered the tables perched precariously on the wooded mountain side.
Inside the Belje Vode Hotel we bantered with the local forest rangers over pints of Serbian beer about Chelsea’s chances of beating Barcelona (we were right) while we all sat out the sudden April snow fall over the Kozara National Park – 175 square kilometres of pristine mountains half an hour outside Banja Luka, the capital of the Republika Srpksa, the Serbian autonomous area in north-west Bosnia.
Yet just half an hour before the laughter we had looked for – and failed to find – the site of the infamous Serbian Omarska concentration camp. Pictures of its starving and shaven-headed prisoners in 1992 helped tell the world about the true nature of the Bosnian war.
Instead we found a wooden church with the Serbian flag flying.
However, I should have known that my time in the republic was going to be a journey from heaven to hell and back again when shortly after David Bailey MBE picked me up from Zagreb airport in Croatia as a guest of his new company Holiday In Bosnia he warned me not to stray too far from main roads and paths due to the danger of minefields. Overgrown woods and fields are a sure sign of mines.
No wonder some of my friends thought a Holiday In Bosnia sounded like a contradiction in terms.
Bailey is an ex-British soldier, Digital Influence evangelist and world music blogger who decided to stay behind in Banja Luka with local girl Tam when the NATO peacekeepers pulled out. His MBE was awarded for his work in post-conflict reconciliation in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Holiday In Bosnia is his personal attempt to help change Western perceptions of a country he loves and to help the Serbs into the international community. Despite the two-hour drive, Zagreb airport was the closest, with decent flights to Banja Luka. Sarajevo at the moment (there is a motorway being built) is a five-hour drive through the mountains from the city whose Muslim and Croat population was forced to leave during the war.
Although within ten minutes of passing through a boarder whose main purpose seemed to be to tell us that “you are no longer in 21st-century Europe”, it got surreal rather than dangerous when we stopped at Actos.
Actos is a bar near the village of Nova Topola whose garden full of giraffes, castles and rococo garden furniture seemed to owe more to Hallmark Cards than Tito. While we drank pints of the fresh-tasting local beer, Nektar Pivo, ate handfuls of salty thin Bosnian pretzels and talked of the war (Bailey describes it as a conflict that was frozen by NATO rather than one that had ended), picture-perfect families had their tea-time pizza. Few people spoke English – certainly in this part of Bosnia.
The accommodation Holiday In Bosnia offered me was a clean, modernized and comfortable summer holiday apartment hidden amidst the orchards that cover the hills outside Banja Luka. The speed of the broadband put mine at home in Oxford to shame.
That evening, after a day spent driving, it was no surprise that Banja Luka should appear to be a series of snap shots of a city wearily gearing itself up for the night after a big weekend (in this case the Orthodox Easter bank holiday). Or perhaps it was the clear walnut rakia that we tried out before we set out for dinner.
The attractive leafy city of Ottoman houses, Habsburg shops and Communist flats (along with the odd brave minaret) quickly gave to darkness as we plunged down a rough unmade road towards the roar of the river Vrbas and the rainswept terraces of the restaurant Stari Mlin. To the accompaniment of more Nektar (can a man have too much?) I quickly discovered that the local cuisine could be summed up as: meat, meat and more meat. The delicious fried dough of savoury usticipci doughnuts and unripened cream cheese known as kajamk were little preparation for the huge plate of “mixed meat” Turkish-style that followed.
The next morning we were back to modern Bosnia with a shock, as the road to the Kozara National Park took us past the overgrown ruins of houses destroyed by the notorious Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan during his ethnic cleansing of the area. The ruins now jostle with the brilliant white minarets of newly rebuilt mosques against the snowy backdrop of the mountains of a national park founded as a memorial to the 1942 Battle of Kozara, when 37,000 Axis solders fought 3,000 Communist partisans.
Outside the national park and on the same river as the Stari Mlin, the rafting club Kanjon is a tiny piece of Ibiza dropped into the Balkans, though its meze was uniquely Bosnian, made up of warm usticipi with local livanski and vlasic cheese, along with, of course, more meat. The laptops, designer suits and blondes were universal code for conversations that you don’t want to overhear .
On the way back along the river we pulled up outside a mosque with a wooden minaret where the local elders wandered over to us as we took photos to quiz us. I guess you never can forget that people had tried to kill you because of what you believe.
Then we were back in Banja Luka and the hint of promise from the night before was rewarded in the daylight, if, that is – like me – you “get” post-Communist cities with everything that entails. If you don’t, go somewhere else.
As we wandered around the city, waiters were putting the tables outside restaurants for the first time that season, while in Sofitel-style bars such as the Halja Hotel men in suits having meetings jostled for tables with old ladies sipping tea or champagne and in the dark smoky bars that lined the Gosposka lurked dangerous men with dark intent – at least in my imagination.
Then there was the Ottoman castle that, with its low-rise walls, seems more Wild West than Middle Ages; and the beautiful 16th-century Ferhad Pasha mosque, which was demolished by Serbian nationalists in 1993 and is still only two thirds rebuilt today.
Finally there was more meat, at the renowned kebab (or cevap) restaurant Mujas, the first place I had heard international voices. Under its bright fluorescent lights and white tiles, the meat finally beat me.
The next morning before we headed back to Zagreb David took me to see the beautiful 18th-century wooden church hidden along a rough track at Slatina – built so low, legend has it, to stop Turkish horseman raiding it. In the graveyard was one of Tam’s father’s uncles, executed for his Communist beliefs in 1940 and only buried properly five years later after his body was recovered from a mass grave.
Our final stop was to a farm high up at Pejcinovic Brdo, where the whole river valley stretched in front of the farm’s medieval barns and chicken runs and hidden within were six dusty oak barrels that contained an aged and very dark, complex plum brandy whose warmth quickly shot through our bodies.
It was a little bit of heaven in a place that had once seen hell.