Growing up in California, I was steeped in the culture of goofy roadside attractions involving ghosts, aliens, Bigfoot, and ancient, unfathomable mysteries recently invented by hucksters who’d like to sell you a ticket and a t-shirt. So you can imagine how my internal radar pinged the moment I first beheld a lurid color poster promoting the Bosnian Pyramids.
I could hardly wait to Google them. “They’re supposedly much bigger and way older than Egypt’s pyramids,” I told Rich. “Apparently they are energy amplifiers that can heal your body, your chakras, and your aura.”
The Bosnian Pyramids were “discovered” (naysayers claim invented) in 2005 by Sam Osmanagich, a Bosnian business man who declared the cluster of pointy hills near Sarajevo "the greatest pyramidal complex ever built on the face of the earth." His announcement caused a sensation, providing a huge boost to national pride — and tourism — in the aftermath of the devastating Bosnian War of 1992-1995. Supporting Osmanagich’s claims became a litmus test of patriotism in many circles. Just last night a local man told me the pyramids were a national treasure and the first thing we should visit in the region. He takes his little daughter there every year for a general cleansing.
The scientific community has spent years vigorously protesting that Osmanagich is perpetrating "a cruel hoax on an unsuspecting public." As Boston University archaeologist Curtis Runnels put it, “All of the ‘finds’ being made by Osmanagich are either natural features like rocks, or the result of long occupation in these valleys by people since the Greco-Roman period. As for the supernatural powers he claims for these ‘pyramids,’ one only has to note that Mr. Osmanagich published a book claiming the Maya came from the Pleiades constellation.” Nevertheless, tourists happily continue to flock to the site, and Osmanagich happily continues to collect the entrance fees, sell them t-shirts, and assure them their auras have never looked better.
“We should go to the pyramids,” I said to Rich. “Maybe we’ll be the first to see Bigfoot there.”
But before organizing an expedition to the pyramids, I thought it would be fun to research roadside attractions right here in Sarajevo. And it turns out the town has some doozies.
The ICAR Canned Beef Monument stands as an ironic tribute to the horrendous food sent over as humanitarian aid during the Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted three years, ten months, three weeks, and three days. Yes, the UN meant well. But they delivered rations left over from the Vietnam conflict that were 20 years past their expiration date. They shipped in tins of pork, which couldn’t be eaten by the Muslim half of the population. And then there were the cans of something called ICAR beef, reportedly so foul even starving dogs wouldn’t touch it. One blogger 's grandfather told him, “If there is another siege, I would rather die than eat ICAR.”
After the war, the “grateful citizens of Sarajevo” put up this monument, a meter-high replica of the ICAR beef can, which sadly, or perhaps appropriately, has fallen into a dreadful state of disrepair.
Less than a block away stands another icon of the war, the former Holiday Inn. Situated on “Sniper Alley,” one of the most dangerous roads in the besieged city, the hotel was home base for many war correspondents, including CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. "Many times it was shot by artillery fire, mortars were fired that landed on or near it, windows were broken regularly,” she said. “I remember the coffee bar, which had a canopy on top of it, in the atrium lobby was hit and caught fire." Despite the risks, and often the lack of hot water or electricity, it was the most stable factor in their lives at the time. “We considered the Holiday Inn our recreation, our home. It was where we woke up, where we went to sleep, where we visited each other, sometimes in each others' rooms. It was where love affairs blossomed, it was where we worked, it was where we escaped death. It was really everything to many of us."
The Holiday Inn was considerably less exciting in 2005 when Rich and I first visited it en route to a volunteer work project. We arrived late at night by taxi, staring about us at all the bombed-out, bullet-riddled buildings — never a reassuring sight. We spent the night half-expecting the sound of artillery fire (none came), had coffee under the refurbished canopy in the atrium lobby, and departed for another city to do our work.
Since then, the city of Sarajevo has been busy patching the bullet holes, rebuilding its infrastructure, and enticing tourists from around the world to enjoy its rich East-meets-West culture. The hotel's post-war recovery has been a bit more haphazard, culminating in losing its Holiday Inn branding and eventually being shut down by Bosnia's State Investigation and Protection Agency for reasons I probably don’t want to know about. We revisited a few days ago to find it in fine condition, fully restored and renamed Hotel Holiday, allowing them to capitalize on its fame without technically violating laws pertaining to terminated franchise agreements.
For another blast from the past, Rich and I stopped for coffee at the Caffe Tito, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the former Yugoslavian dictator. For an authoritarian ruler, President for Life Josip Broz Tito was surprisingly popular, a strongman who united former enemies and forged them into a socialist state with a market economy.
“Yes, Tito was a dictator,” said Adis, our guide on the free walking tour the day before. “And yes, he imprisoned people and had his political enemies killed. But sometimes that’s necessary to keep a country together.” Yikes! I guess that’s one perspective.
“Now that Tito’s gone, I hear there’s a lot of corruption,” someone said.
Adis grinned. “You call it corruption, we call it a free market.”
Caffe Tito sits by a park and playground, where we spent a few heartwarming moments watching little children climb around on old tanks and artillery weapons. Inside was a wealth of memorabilia honoring the man and his era, from his leadership of the Partisans during WWII until his death in 1980. Cult-like portraits of Tito, camouflage fabrics, and vintage weaponry rubbed shoulders with dial telephones, mid-century radios, and vinyl record albums.
It was at the Caffe Tito that Rich and I took a hard look at the proposed expedition to the Bosnian Pyramids. It was 90 degrees, with humidity somewhere around 60 percent, and I was holding a glass of cold water to my forehead, wishing I had the nerve to dump it over my head right there at the table. Maybe if I slipped off behind one of the armored tanks…
“Do you remember what I wrote last week about the wisdom of not climbing to high castles in hot weather? “ I said. “I’m thinking that might apply to pyramids too.”
Abandoning the Bosnian Pyramid expedition was clearly the smart move. Oh sure, I had been looking forward to having my aura cleansed; it was feeling a bit grubby after all the bus rides and sweaty weather. And I was sorry now that I’d wasted minutes viewing the intro to the surprisingly dull video Bosnian pyramid SHOCK: Ancient Civilization Received Knowledge from SPACE.” Perhaps I’ll never discover the “truth” about how aliens figure into the story. But I know one thing for sure: for every once-in-a-lifetime-marvel that I skip, there are at least a dozen other, equally outlandish sites out there, just waiting for me to stumble upon them. I’m saving my strength, trusting my aura will somehow recuperate without paranormal assistance, and keeping my eyes open for signs pointing to the next offbeat roadside attraction, wherever it may be.
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OUR MEDITERRANEAN COMFORT FOOD TOUR
Days on the road: 102
Current location: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Traditional recipes posted: 15
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. Right now we're on our Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture.
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