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Balkans holiday offers historical remindersand glimpses of the future

A blow-up of the famous photo of Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist who shot Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering the First World War, stopped me in my tracks.

A blow-up of the famous photo of Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian nationalist who shot Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering the First World War, stopped me in my tracks.

I knew well that memories in this part of the world are long and entrenched. And although I was also aware that Princip remains a hero to many Serbs, I was surprised to see this very public homage in the showcase window of a lovely, old-world bookshop on a major thoroughfare of Belgrade, Serbia.

Arriving by coach from Budapest on the outskirts of Belgrade, the initial impression was of massive, wan-coloured Soviet-era apartment complexes, in various states of repair, and, closer to the inner city, winding streets of crumbling pre-Soviet buildings, some of rugged stone, and often abandoned. Everywhere, the streets were filled with battered cars, rickety trams and people waiting for transit.

At the same time, it became hugely clear during a two-week tour through Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania that, in a region that emerged less than 20 years ago from the Bosnian war, in which 100,000 people died, life has improved — dramatically.

When an American friend and I ventured that evening along the Knez Mihailova (Prince Michael Street) in central Belgrade, we discovered a pedestrian boulevard lined with gorgeous if sometimes dilapidated 19th-century buildings — maybe neo-renaissance or grandiose baroque, or turn-of-the-last-century art-deco — fronted by big-brand stores, art-inspired shops, restaurants, cafes and mid-sidewalk bars.

Buskers — including a girl on violin, and an aging guitarist in ponytail and eccentric dress — enlightened the thoroughfare.

Discovering this street at dusk, illuminated by old-fashioned street lamps, was like finding a hidden chocolate egg — a luxuriant surprise. Rightly or wrongly, I began relaxing my view that the Balkans, from Serbia through Romania, remains dark and impoverished.

From Belgrade, we drove southeast, through the city of Nis, into a gently mountainous region of picturesque villages, filled with the small, individualistic, slate-roofed houses that you see throughout the Balkans. Meandering rivers run through lush ravine-like valleys. Orchards of the kind of gnarly, old fruit trees that you once saw in the Okanagan were typical — still producing the fruit brandies ("rakija" or "rakia") that have fortified the people of the Balkans through centuries of incredible hardship.

We slipped into Bulgaria and Sofia, its largest city. I was here in the early 1990s, when it was still communist. But apart from the unspeakably beautiful Alexander Nevski Cathedral, with its multi-domed neo-Byzantine basilica, I didn't recognize the city at all.

Our Crystal Palace Boutique Hotel was discreetly nestled into a matrix of narrow tree-lined streets of smallish 19th-century homes and apartment houses — a setting that, to my mind, expressed everything a modest-sized cosmopolitan European city should be about. Privately owned bars or restaurants were sprinkled here and there.

One needs only a cursory knowledge of the Balkans through the 20th century (and that's after they kicked out the life-crushing Turks) to recall that, in the words of English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, "each step in (their) struggles has been marked by horror, ambush, assassination, burnt villages, uprooting and massacres leaving behind them the curses of fear, hatred, irredentism and thirst for revenge."

But here, in an admittedly small pocket of Sofia, the ambiance was slightly old-fashioned yet comfortable, even affluent. Bulgaria and Romania joined the European Union in 2007, and clearly that has made a big difference.

From Sofia we drove south to the Rila Monastery, in the mountains of the same name. The most important religious site in Bulgaria, this fantastic neo-Byzantine pile attracts hundred of tourists daily, thereby eviscerating the austere serenity it must once have known. But its eccentric rustic-wood and domed architecture, atmospheric nativity church, and, perfectly intact icon-like murals on Biblical themes around the church exterior, make it worthy of its renown.

Sidestepping a trio of Eastern Orthodox monks in full black habit, a few of us made our way down to a terrace café overlooking a treed ravine that must once have protected the monastery. For the equivalent of a few dollars, we dined on excellent monastery bean soup, and house-made Balkan yogurt drenched in nuts and honey.

Back in Sofia that evening, a companion and I walked the inner back streets in search of a recommended restaurant. In the end, Osterio Barbarrosa, at 32, Hristo Belchev, served superb Northern Italian cuisine in a great space, run by a young, sophisticated staff. It was more evidence of change in Bulgaria– certainly in the 20 years since I was last there.

(Part II of the Balkans travel story will run next week in Pique or at